Photo of Nathan Lesch in front of a sign that says "welcome media filing center"

5 questions with… Nathan Lesch, The Observer reporter who was part of the working media at the first presidential debate

Junior Nathan Lesch had a close-up seat to history Tuesday as a member of the working media covering the presidential debate from the media filing center at the Intercontinental Cleveland Hotel. 

Typically journalists would be in the debate hall—in this instance, the Sheila and Eric Samson Pavilion at the Health Education Campus—but pandemic restrictions meant that only a handful of major broadcast networks and photographers were permitted inside. 

Lesch joined reporters including those from National Public Radio (NPR), The Washington Post and several foreign news organizations sitting socially distanced from one another and watching the debate on large monitors spread throughout the center. 

“It was pretty intense in there leading up to the debate, through the debate and after,” said Lesch, who is majoring in economics, environmental studies and political science. “Everyone was working, steely and diligently. It was pretty cool and it was interesting to observe what everyone was doing.”

Lesch came to the debate with a specific purpose: To write a piece on what President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden said or didn’t say about issues pertinent to his audience, such as student loans, jobs and the economy.

Separately, three reporters and a photographer from The Observer covered nearby protests, while another reporter remotely covered the debate watch party hosted by Case Western Reserve’s Center for Civic Engagement and Learning to hear student perspectives in real time. Observer columnists also planned to weigh in.

The debate-heavy issue comes out today as an online newsletter, which The Observer started last spring in lieu of its print newspaper after the university went remote during the pandemic.

Lesch spent the rest of spring semester at his home in Auburn, New York, and helped lead the effort to create the newsletter, a difficult task because the student staff needed to quickly build a template and gain online subscribers—even as they lived in several different time zones and created content for a campus that was not in person. “It’s still a work in progress,” Lesch said.

He’s come a long way from the first-year student who hadn’t been a high-school journalist and only happened on The Observer during the fall Student Activities Fair. He quickly started writing “and I just kept writing and found I really loved it,” Lesch said.

The email informing him he’d secured debate credentials came in mid-September. “I would never have imagined being able to have this experience,” he said days later.

Still in Auburn, Lesch had planned to return to campus last Monday, but media had to sign up for COVID-19 testing and his slot was Sunday.

Hours after the test, he received the results and his credentials. The press pass “gave me confidence and authority,” said Lesch, who spent time talking with protestors. He also visited the Samson Pavilion, where the first floor had been transformed into the debate setting.

Lesch arrived at the media filing center hours early, “struck by how serious and significant it was to be there.”

What did he think of the debate itself? Check out his writing in the Observer newsletter, but, suffice to say he thought it was pretty much what he expected: Heavy on spectacle, light on issues, with the candidates each struggling at times.

Immediately afterwards, Lesch found it “super cool” to see reporters from NPR and foreign media quickly put on headsets or pulled out small cameras—and just get on the air right then, right where they were.

If it’s true that journalists write the first draft of history, then Lesch has helped produce a chapter. “It’s an amazing thought that I could contribute in that way,” he said.

Read stories on The Observer website or sign up for its weekly newsletter, but first read Nathan Lesch’s answers to our five questions.

1. What was the last book you read?

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. We read it for the class Public Opinion and American Democracy with Professor [Justin] Buchler in political science. The class had to radically change with the online-only format. It’s a really interesting approach to have us read science fiction books and use them to explore academic concepts that we would have otherwise learned about in a more traditional way. In some cases, we look at how the authors think about their worlds as a proxy for the American public.

2. When you were younger, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I didn’t have a really clear career path in mind. I wanted to do something with nature. I didn’t want an office job, I wanted to be out there doing stuff. I’m still interested in nature and the environment.

3. If you could have a superpower, what would it be?

I’ll go with the classic, which is flying. You could go and explore the whole world. I’m assuming you would fly quickly. I think that would be so cool. I would love to be able to fly and see the pyramids or Machu Picchu. There are all these amazing places in the world and it seems impossible to hit them all. Maybe if I could fly, I could hit them all.

4. Who has had the greatest influence on you?

My dad [Jason Lesch], definitely. He’s helped me build a strong work ethic and, I think, moral character. When I was in late elementary school and into middle school, he was a school board member of the Auburn City School District [in New York state]. He would go to our state capital in Albany and lobby, and he was a big part of getting the school funding formula changed so that the public-school system would be able to continue having things we think of as so basic for schools—sports teams, band and other things that were on the chopping block.

5. What’s your favorite thing about Case Western Reserve?

The people. I’ve met students and faculty that are really inspiring. I’ve been impressed by the friends I’ve made, how incredibly dedicated they are to what they’re doing. I appreciate people who want to change the world and make things better. I have some friends who really have persevered through things I don’t know if I would have made it through, and it’s inspiring. I didn’t know many university professors before going to school. I’ve been impressed by how you can build personal relationships with professors and even administrators—it’s a nice community. People actually really care about each other.