Photo Lachlan Hardy, Creative Commons BY 2.0 license
As any good journalist or criminal will tell you, the key to being somewhere you shouldn’t be is confidence.
In the fall of 2013, I was a college senior studying at the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno. In the spring, I would graduate with a bachelor of arts in Journalism with an emphasis in print media (which has since been discontinued in a ringing endorsement of how marketable the school considered that skill would be in the digital landscape).
I loved my time at the Reynolds School. Throughout my education, I had never been a strong student, except for my English and writing acumen, and I embraced the sense of purpose and community I found studying to be a journalist. I dove into my studies, became editor-in-chief of the university’s student-run magazine, and forged professional relationships with my professors – all respected members of the field I hoped to enter.
I aspired to the likes of John Krakauer, Gay Talese, and Hunter S. Thompson (fitting, as I write a story about the triumphs and pitfalls of drinking), and my exuberance was noticed. I earned an invitation to sit with some of my professors at the prestigious Foundation Annual Banquet, the school’s biggest black-tie fundraising event and a hot ticket for a bright-eyed undergrad.
It was time for my entry into the world of high academia and professional journalists, underscored by the night’s keynote speaker: legendary CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer.
On the night of the dinner, I arrived at the grand ballroom in the Atlantis Casino in downtown Reno wearing my best three-piece Alfani suit — purchased on sale at Macy’s by my mom for the occasion. Polished shoes clacking on the marble floor, I strode past the eternal rattle of the slot machines and smoke-filled sports book into the double doors of the venue. Inside was a throng of elegantly dressed people and dozens of immaculately set tables surrounding the main stage at the back of the room. Most of the invitees were huddled around something unfathomable to my newly 21-year-old sensibilities: an open bar.
I was a college student—no stranger to booze. However, pre-dinner drinks and rubbing elbows with donors and dignitaries were outside of my wheelhouse. As I approached the bar, I had a decision to make. This was not the night for house party jungle juice or the questionable beer I was making in my basement, I told myself. No, tonight calls for something refined, mature, serious.
“Martini, please,” I ordered, having never had one.
I tipped the bartender generously (one paper dollar and two shiny quarters), collected my drink, and wheeled off into the crowd. It was another 45 minutes until dinner.
The drink in my right hand both tasted and acted like gasoline, fueling the engine that was my mouth. In the ambient gloom of the ballroom, anyone who welcomed me into the conversation found me eager to speak: plans after graduation, hometown anecdotes, thoughts on the evolving state of journalism. Many guests were entertained, I think, and all of them were gracious. And while I don’t believe I made a scene, I honestly don’t remember a single face I spoke to during cocktail hour.
I do remember going back for another martini.
When the announcement was made to seat us for dinner, I was in rough shape. I recognized that. I gingerly poured myself into my seat surrounded by some of my classmates—other students who had earned similar invitations—the professor who had invited us, and a few other guests who might as well have been imaginary for all I remember of them.
Then the wait staff poured the red wine.
I began a delicate balancing act. Refusing the wine, I thought, would be an admission that I had overdone it during cocktail hour — an admission I refused to make — but I also couldn’t let on just how far into the bag I had ventured. I became more reserved during dinner, focusing mightily on the individual tasks I needed to accomplish: cut steak, chew, laugh at joke, small wine sip, big water sip, “Yes I did read that profile in the Times,” mashed potatoes. I think I did OK.
Mercifully, it came time for the keynote address. I spun around in my seat to watch Mr. Blitzer emerge from an enormous curtain hung behind a lectern on the stage. The sharp edge of the martinis had worn off by then, giving way to a dull glow courtesy of the red wine. I was enthralled. While I wasn’t an avid cable news viewer, here was a man who established a long and prolific career in the industry I had committed my higher education to entering.
He opened with an acknowledgment and thanks to the university for inviting him to speak, then launched into a clear, concise soliloquy about his career, the need for investment in institutions like the Reynolds School to navigate a changing information economy, and his hope for the next generation of journalists in upholding the highest ideals of the industry. I sat slightly drunk in the back row feeling as if he was talking to me.
Blitzer finished his speech to loud applause and exited the stage behind the same curtain. Then, somewhat unceremoniously, the house lights came up and it was time to start exiting the ballroom.
As my classmates, professor, and I parted ways, I watched from across the room as two guests ducked behind the curtain to the left of the stage. I felt my feet pulling me toward the same curtain. The wine had given me a sense of egalitarianism. “If them, why not me?” was the simple, half-baked crux of my idea.
I had no idea what I would find behind that curtain. I wasn’t really planning on meeting Wolf Blitzer, I had no idea what I would say to him. I simply couldn’t think of a reason not to follow these other guests even if, in retrospect, it was clear I was not supposed to.
I briefly looked around to see if I was being watched and pulled the curtain to the side as if I belonged. I entered an impressively large backstage room and immediately bumped into the back of a very tall, older man in a tuxedo. He looked down at me quizzically.
“Hello, I’m Matt Bieker with the journalism school,” I said, sticking out my hand and smiling like an actor in a toothpaste commercial.
“Hi Matt, I’m Marc,” he replied, shaking my hand.
This was Marc Johnson, then-president of UNR, here with his invited guests for a private meet and greet with the keynote speaker. I continued to smile. Before I was obliged to invent an actual reason for me to be behind that curtain, Blitzer approached the group. President Johnson’s attention was drawn away from me, the obvious interloper.
I was in too deep now. Blitzer began making the rounds, making acquaintances and shaking hands, sharing stories, and returning compliments. Then he came to me.
“Hi Mr. Blitzer, I’m Matt Bieker, I’m a big fan of your work,” I said, even though most of what I knew of his career I learned from his speech about 20 minutes earlier.
“Bieker? Is that German?” he replied. “You know I was born in Germany. What do you want to do, Matt?”
“I’m about to graduate with a degree in print journalism,” I said proudly.
“Print? Why, you’ve got a face for TV!” he said.
I laughed. I had a sudden vision of being Wolf Blitzer’s intern at CNN.
“Do you think you could tell a few people that for me?” I replied, about 75% joking.
He gave a hearty chuckle and then a photographer with the school’s PR department suggested that everyone gather for a group photo—a request I was happy to oblige. I lined up accordingly and smiled for the camera, my eyes only slightly unfocused from the wine in the resulting shot. It wasn’t enough that I had crashed the president’s auspicious meet and greet, my intrusion would now be part of the permanent record.
Photo courtesy Matt Bieker
And that was that. Blitzer adjourned to whatever hotel room the university had put him up in and the president and his group turned their attention to one another, leaving me to slip away before anyone could question my presence there in earnest.
As I walked out into the cool night air, I felt oddly accomplished. I doubt President Johnson even remembers me crashing his party, and for all the booze I’d partaken in, I handled myself reasonably well in the company of all manner of bigwigs. Perhaps best of all, I met a news legend through a combination of opportunism, luck, and a little harmless rule-breaking. If there’s a moral or lesson to this story it escapes me. But if I were to concoct one for the sake of rounding out this article, maybe it’s that sometimes all you need for a good story is a little confidence — no matter how you can get it.