A Creaky Political Tradition Meets A Nimble Digital Media
Doug Bernard | Charlotte NC
Journalists, as a rule, are pretty good complainers. Conventions bring out some of our best.
Come stand in line at the poetically named “Concession Stand” here in the basement of the Charlotte Convention Center for a few minutes and you’ll hear what I mean. “Uhgh, what is it about America and fried food? I’d kill for anything green,” sighs one Francophone reporter to his colleague. “What? No! It’s like a soggy armpit out there!” shouts a young woman into her mobile phone, blocking the soda machine. The impatient man with the media tags behind her rolls his eyes and puts his hand to his face in a pantomime of a cell phone screamer. (To be fair, much of the food here is fried, and Charlotte has been awfully damp.)
Criticism is something that comes naturally to journalism. It’s part of the job. But when it comes to finding ways to explain slow and complex moving processes – like conventions or American politics – we can struggle.
Every junior reporter knows how easy it can be to report on a house fire: it happened, dramatic footage, sympathetic victims, just the facts, done. (That’s assuming you don’t want to dig deeper.) It’s much harder to report on something like the money chase that politicians must endure if they want to take office, even though that’s arguably a more important story for the public at large.
Which brings us to the slow-moving beast we call the modern political convention.
“What these conventions are, more than anything else, are trade shows,” writes Matt Stoler at the blog Naked Capitalsm. “Specifically, they are trade shows for the political class.” He’s far from alone.
“A waste,” barks media critic Jeff Jarvis over at Buzz Machine:
“Note that even while newspapers and news organizations have shrunken drastically, we are sending the same number of journalists to the conventions that we sent in 2008 and 2004. Why? Editorial ego: It’s fun to be there, in the pack. It’s fun for a paper or station to say, ‘We have our man/woman in Tampa/Charlotte.’ Well goody for you.”
There are an estimated 15,000 reporters covering the conventions this year; almost as large a crush as the omnipresent security forces in Tampa and Charlotte. The majority of those journalists are working in the security zone, behind the black riot gates that keep all but the lucky few with credentials out.
But just how many stories can there be at a convention? How much money is being spent to report essentially the same news? How many politicians and delegates can reporters talk to before realizing that there’s not that much there there? Perhaps not that many, and yet editors continue to send armies to conventions cycle after cycle.
The Broadway choreography of modern conventions has chafed generations of reporters…or at least it should have. Many complain but few actually do anything about it, as in 1996 when ABC anchor Ted Koppel huffed at the GOP convention “Nothing surprising has happened; nothing surprising is anticipated,” before packing up and leaving mid-week. Oh, for the days.
Big media these days are more likely to buy politicians massages and drinks than they are to leave in a snit. “At a time of broad economic distress and retrenchment in many parts of the media,” writes Washington Post media reporter Paul Fahri, “some news organizations have spent considerable sums on parties, freebies and showy extras during the gatherings.”
Journalists have not only become part of the story, some appear to have grown comfortable in that role. “When I think of things that should be in a political convention swag bag, I think colorful t-shirts, buttons, and unnecessary bridge-building projects for my district,” snorts Gawker‘s Hamilton Nolan. “The Republicans disappointed. The Democrats are even worse.” Yes, I get that Nolan writes snark. Still, it feels a little dispiriting.
Speaking with GQ‘s Reid Cherlin, former White House press secretary Dana Perino wonders whether the old-fashioned convention has outlived its purpose entirely. “America has moved beyond this,” she tells Cherlin. “The DNC and the RNC, it feels like 1990s. It looks the same; it feels the same. The hall is the same,” says Perino.
Things may be changing. This year both parties lopped a full day of events off from their conventions and seem to have muddled through. If three days works well, why not two, or one? And, as we’ve asked before, why not connect party faithful through the Internet, rather than gathering them together in crowded arenas far from home?
One of the sidebar stories to this year’s conventions seems to be both political party’s embrace of social and digital media. Republicans and Democrats report record levels of website traffic as they stream events, connect supporters with each other, and otherwise sell their candidates to the voting public. Social media firms large and small say the same thing.
Where a decade ago reporting was largely the domain of established media companies with deep pockets, now the convention halls are filled with laptops, mobile phones and cameras small enough to put in a backpack – something unheard of as recently as 1996. Writing in the National Journal, John Aloysius Farrell quotes longtime Los Angeles Times writer Doyle McManus as he describes the 2012 conventions as a mix of traditional TV coverage and a “hyperactive and very intense cocktail of new social media.”
Whether social and digital media will do a better job at explaining American politics than the creaky old journalism giants like CBS News or The New York Times isn’t clear. Both of those organizations (and many others) have considerable resources and on any given day can produce outstanding journalism. A tweet will always and only ever be 140 characters.
Conventions are changing. So are our media, and what we expect of the reporters covering them. But in the end, says the New York Times‘ Mark Leibovich, perhaps the best way to cover conventions is to just let them be what their organizers want them to be, and present it all without any filter at all for the public to do with as they will. In other words: C-SPAN.
“I think that C-SPAN is a national treasure,” Leibovich tells VOA, referring to the cable network where unfiltered is the byword and viewers – not loud TV personalities – are the ones who question politicians:
“I wish there were more networks that provided full, unfiltered coverage of whatever’s going on (even if just for an hour or so a day — on top of their regular programming) Not a lot of bells and whistles. My sense is that the C-SPAN model has been replicated in various forms that have been rewarded: Charlie Rose, for instance, has sort of a C-SPAN style, and also, in a weird sense, the conversational flow of Morning Joe. In my view, the more C-SPAN-like the other networks get — no shouting, organic non-partisanship (as opposed to kabuki partisanship) — the better. Not a lot of special effects, the better. Unclear if the market would sustain it, but I’d watch, and I think the process would be rewarding.”
Sounds a lot like social media to me.
Full disclosure: Dana Perino currently sits on VOA’s parent agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors. Doug Bernard previously worked at C-SPAN for six years, from 1995 to 2000.