Behind the Prizes: Hers to Lose

It was an historic race – after Mayor Bloomberg’s three-term reign over New York City, an exciting set of new candidates was stepping up to take his place. One of them, Christine Quinn, was running a particularly unique campaign. Were she to win, she would become not only the first gay mayor of New York City, but also the first woman to hold the position.

This caught the interest of The New York Times video desk. In the same vein as the War Room and Street Fight, the Times video team set out to document her campaign. Brent McDonald, who has worked for the Times since 2005, took on the role of lead videographer. Quinn agreed to be shadowed, thinking the race was hers to lose. But the story took an unexpected turn when her polling numbers started to slip. McDonald explains the challenges of filming a campaign that took a turn for the worse, and how he and his team got access in the first place.

Columbia Visuals: How did you find this story?

Brent McDonald: I didn’t find the story, I cant take credit for that. That was my colleague Zena Barakat who is now on fellowship at Stanford. She had a great idea to do a profile of Christine Quinn and follow her through the race, and she and Rick Berke, who was one of our editors at the time, sent a letter to her early on in the race.

 CV: Why Christine Quinn and not the other candidates?

BM: I think all of them were worthy of following, but she had very strong backing and a war chest of resources and also seven years of experience as the city council speaker, and was poised to become the first openly gay woman candidate and mayor and woman mayor of NYC. We thought that whatever happens within her race, it will make for an interesting and compelling story.

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CV: How did you get access?

BM: [Zena and Rick] met with her to talk about it. I think [Quinn’s team] was fairly cool on the idea for a while, so we didn’t hear back. Months passed. I think it was after the Anthony Weiner debacle – the next round of sexting came out and he dropped in the polls – and suddenly she was the clear front-runner. It was around that time that we got a call back expressing interest in doing this project. We agreed that we would have a certain amount of access to her behind the scenes and her campaign team and do one or two interviews every week. It was during the last month that she went from clear front-runner to a distant third place in the primary. The story really chronicles what happened. It took a little more pressure from us to get that access [once the campaign went downhill.] But Quinn was really a mensch – she stuck to the terms even when things looked really blue, till the end. You know, until that last scene in the Dream Hotel where she’s on the verge of tears.

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CV: How did you make sure the doc didn’t turn into a campaign promotion for Quinn?

BM: If she were to go on to win the race, it would’ve been harder to show that distance because it would’ve continued to be a positive experience for her. When it quickly turned, and she started sliding in the polls, we kept filming and we kept filming. I think it became uncomfortable for her and her campaign in those moments. We had to really push and be there just to get those moments because otherwise they weren’t just going to offer them up to us. Also we spoke to a lot of her critics. Whether it was the animal rights advocates or the other candidates, not just in the debates but in their speeches. Even though we were focusing on one candidate, embedded inside one candidate’s campaign, it was still fairly balanced in the coverage in terms of the issues.The behind the scenes reality of a campaign that has these stressful moments or those moments where they’re emotionally really fragile. I think that’s where the journalism shows the most.

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CV: What was the response to the film?

BM: We had a lot of positive response. I think, for one, people felt the film humanized her in a way that they hadn’t seen before.The way she was portrayed in the news before was not in a very sympathetic light. She was the bossy, pushy city council speaker and polls judged her on likeability and that she was unlikeable as a candidate. I think that she felt bruised by that, but I think that the film is a more sympathetic portrayal.

 CV: How do you think the World Press Photo award will help the film?

BM: First of all, it’s a great honor to win an award from World Press Photo. I wasn’t really expecting that – I wasn’t aware we’d submitted, so it was awesome. I hope that a lot more people saw it because of that. I think that’s the biggest thing when you invest so much time and energy and resources into a project like this. It’s only really showing online and it’s only on the homepage of the NY Times for a day or two, and then it’s gone. You wonder,“Wow how many people really got to see this?”

 You can see screenings of Hers to Lose during the free exhibition hosted by the Brown Institute from January 19- February 6, 4pm-8pm Monday through Friday. More information on the World Press Photo Multimedia exhibition can be found here.

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