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July 22, 2004

Convention Blogging: Manic Update, Four Days Out

In which the author shows he can blog like a normal person.

Maybe it is time for a New Journalism again: Ex New York Times reporter and Ad Age columnist Randall Rothenberg: “American journalism is at its nadir.” (July 18)

Well, this is certainly new: CNN’s press release announcing a partnership with Technorati to provide a “blog watch” during the conventions. Technorati’s head guy, David Sifry adds:

And on Sunday, July 25, we’ll launch a new section of our site for political coverage: This site will make it easy for bloggers, journalists, and anyone interested in politics to see the postings of the most linked-to political bloggers, to track the ideas with the fastest-growing buzz, and to monitor conversations in thousands of other political blogs. will link to this site, and we’ll be updating the CNN site with the latest from the blogosphere.

Doc Searls comments on the news: “While this is necessarily about CNN and Technorati, it’s also about the unavoidable coming together of blogs and media to cover a Major Event in symbiosis rather than competition. That’s the Big Story here.”

Things bloggers in Boston should ask around about… David Horsey, Seattle Post-Intelligencer political cartoonist: What’s better than party conventions?

Are conventions simply anachronisms? Is it time to find a more modern method of getting us all engaged with the presidential campaign? Here’s my Burning Question:

Is there a novel alternative to political party conventions that might better connect with new generations of voters?

Would party participants, planners, officials, delegates, volunteers, assorted Deaniacs and hangers on have something to say about it? Bet some would.

Four Years Ago… Around this time, Martin Plissner, former executive political director of CBS News (that means the guy in the control room) wrote a solid piece in the Washington Post on the conventions: It’s Not a News Event, But It Plays One on TV. Some of his sharper observations:

Before the vice president told the teary tale of his sister’s demise, Democratic handlers thoughtfully provided a schematic of the box where the Gore family was sitting, enabling network directors to superimpose the family members’ identities on the screen as they focused on one bereaved face after another. In many ways, the cheerleading style of the broadcasters and the level of production cooperation with the event’s sponsor (the party) often have more in common with television sports than television news….

At the close of [the big] speeches comes the moment for these proud news organizations to bring their analytical prowess to bear on the choices being offered the country. But in the narrow confines of the planned network coverage, there’s very little time to do any of that. Convention planners routinely make sure that the main speech of the evening goes right up to the end of the scheduled broadcast, creating a dilemma for the networks: How to provide analysis without enraging local affiliates eager to get on with their own late evening news.

Naive Question: Who has responsibility for turning the conventions into an overly-scripted “show” and do they hold press conferences where they take questions about it? Four years ago “Nightline” producer Richard Harris said: “The parties have their work cut out for them to explain to the American public why it is they should spend any time paying attention to events where the outcome is preordained.” Invite some of the 15,000 media people to that one, too… you know, to explain.

Now this is more like it… Dan Bricklin, The Convention is coming, the Convention is coming. In which a self-described tech blogger without credentials, who lives in Boston, reflects on what the invited bloggers can bring:

A “traditional journalist” gets us the facts — who, what, where, when, why. They try in many ways to be interchangeable, except that some may be closer to an “ideal” than others. Bloggers are different to me. They have a name and a history. I’ve seen how some of them have reacted to all sorts of things and know some of their perspectives. The Convention will fit in there in that stream from them over time, and the human element that they have already given us (or that we can read in old posts and in posts in the future) is something on which their reports will be carried.

Some may find this part sappy. I did not:

I remember a child who when asked if they remembered visiting Cape Kennedy Space Center years before said “Is that the place where I saw the cat with her kittens?” with no mention of any huge rocket carcasses nearby. I want to hear the wonder at seeing things that are not supposed to be the “story” but that matter to someone. We know who is going to be nominated. What else do we learn instead from having so many people together for such a purpose with such emotion behind their reasons for being involved

Note the distinction: what news was made at the convention? and what did we learn? are different questions. (The answers could be “none” and “lots.”) Read the rest of Bricklin’s piece.

David Weinberger, also a Bostonian (credentialed) reacts to Bricklin this way:

I find I have no coherent expectations about it or what I’ll write about. I bounce from thinking that I’ll react to the Big Speeches to reporting small anecdotes to reading the clips of Mailer’s 1960s political coverage and thinking “Take away the talent and incredible insight, and what’s he got that I don’t got?” I can’t even anticipate how cynical or filled with spirit I’ll be; I am, after all, perfectly capable of crying at a good political speech.

New way of organizing the media seats in the Fleet Center… “Can you cry at good political speech? This way please. Can’t cry? You’re in this section over here. Wanna cry but never have? To the left.”

Not just the what, but the why… Here’s Amy Wohl commenting at ConventionBloggers.Com (community site for bloggers participating in the DNC): “Those of us who are watching the DNC from afar will be counting on those of you who are blogging from ‘inside’ to try to see the real story — the one the official journalists won’t write. Be curious, be candid, be passionate, and try to tell us not just what you are seeing and thinking, but why.” (Via Scripting News, where Dave Winer says: “Amy Wohl said something I’ve been wanting to say, so perfectly, that I’ll just let her speak for me.”)

And I would add: there is subtle difference between the stories “official journalists won’t write” and the stories they wouldn’t write— meaning “even think of.”

Atmospherics: Dana Goldstein at World Editors Weblog (an international site): “I for one, am very interested to see to what extent bloggers like Rosen take advantage of their actual physical presence at the conference to give readers a real taste of the atmosphere in Boston, as opossed to just doing what they could have done from home, which is comment on the speeches and the way big media covers them.”

Explanation Gap… Dallas Morning News columnist and editorial writer Rod Dreher at The Revealer’s Campaign Coverage Forum:

I don’t see a lot of newspaper religion journalism that tells me all that much about the state of religious life in America today. For that, I go to the specialized publications, and blogs edited by smart people who know where to find these obscure but telling stories and commentaries. Newspaper religion journalism tends to be like newspaper political journalism: following trends more than explaining the fundamentals undergirding and driving the trends.

Journalists doing stories on bloggers, take note: here’s one of your own explaining why he reads “blogs edited by smart people.” And here’s Jeff Jarvis with his categorized starter list of suggested blogs: “A blog list for media guys,” he calls it. And, via Instapundit, here’s a good summary of some of the advantages bloggers have over the mainstream news media, geared to the Sandy Berger story and the Right’s current feeling that the liberal press is downplaying it. But the points are valid whatever the story. Plus: a very good scholarly paper on the influence of weblogs by two bloggers (Daniel Drezner and Henry Farrel) who are political scientists.

De-mystifiers-in-Chief: Here is Adam Nagourney in the New York Times, July 18:

Conventions have been demystified with draw-back-the-curtain journalistic examination that has portrayed them as, largely, elaborate political artifices. It is hard to imagine that Mr. Clinton’s “spontaneous” pre-nomination walk from Macy’s to Madison Square Garden - a riveting break from tradition that signaled that Mr. Clinton was no ordinary candidate for president - would be seen today as anything more than another focus group-driven scene in a very well-staged play.

Yet for all that, the American convention remains a singular moment in the nominating process - a relic of a bygone time, perhaps, but a relic that nonetheless keeps driving the story line of a presidential election.

When are journalists going to learn to describe conventions, not by what they once were, but what they are now? And what lies beyond de-mystification?

And now for my first ever tech news… I have been cramming with tech people at NYU and if things work they way we’ve planned, if the WiFi is working, and if I don’t screw it up with my own green hands, I will be audio-blogging from Boston, posting edited interviews (and maybe my own voice commentaries) on a University server and linking to them at PressThink. (MP3 format.) I have a nifty new SONY Digitial Hand Held ICD-BM1 audio recorder, which I have been fooling around with. Will try to post a test file in the next day or so.

And finally… The convention as ritual: a professor’s note. My fellow academics in journalism and media studies all know his name; too many journalists (and bloggers for that matter) do not. James W. Carey of Columbia University has had the biggest influence on my work of any writer on the press. For purposes of understanding a political convention, I re-read—for maybe the fiftieth time—his most famous essay, “A Cultural Approach to Communication,” where he identifies two alternative views of what communication is all about.

One he calls a “transmission view,” by far the most common in our culture. Here communication is equated with the delivery of “messages” across distance. Typically, the messages are of an informational sort, and they are assumed to be important for making decisions or controlling action. At the “deepest roots of our thinking,” he observes, “we picture the act of communication as the transmittal of information across space.” In contrast to the transmission model stands the ritual view:

Here, communication is linked to terms such as “sharing,” “participation,” “association,” “fellowship,” and the “possession of a common faith.” This definition exploits the ancient identity and common roots of the terms “commonness,” “communion,” “community,” and “communication.” A ritual view of communication is directed not toward the extension of mesages in space but toward the maintenance of society in time;” not the act of imparting information but the representation of shared beliefs.

Perhaps the simplest example of a ritual act of communication is a church sermon, which typically serves not to “send a message” or convey facts, but to draw the congregation together in the celebration and contemplation of a shared faith.

A transmission perspective sees the newspaper as a vehicle for disseminating news and knowledge. It also leads us to ask about the “effects” of this process on receivers. We see news “as enlightening or obscuring reality, as changing or hardening attitudes, as breeding credibility or doubt.” A ritual view treats news-consumption as a different sort of act, concerned not with the conveyance of facts but with our placement in an imaginative space— one that is interesting, dramatic, satisfying to the imagination. From a ritual perspective:

What is arrayed before the reader is not pure information but a portrayal of contending forces in the world. Moreover, as readers make their way through the paper, they engage in a continual shift of roles or of dramatic focus. A story on the monetary crisis salutes them as American patriots fighting those ancient enemies German and Japan; a story on the meeting of the women’s political caucus casts them into the liberation movement as supporter or opponent… The model here is not that of information acquisition, though such acquisition occurs, but of dramatic action in which the reader joins a world of contending forces as an observer at a play.

Why do I lay this out now? Because if you try to understand a political ritual with a transmission view in your head, you will miss much of what’s going on. And because at the deepest roots of their thinking, journalists see the transmission of new information as real and important, whereas ritual communication is fake, newsless and ultimately unimportant. (Aw, hell. Maybe I can’t blog like a normal person.)

Posted by Jay Rosen at July 22, 2004 1:34 AM