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July 26, 2004

For Party and Press, the Conventions Are A Memory Device: First Report From Boston

Conventions connect us backward in political time. But they especially give the two major parties a storied past. This has become more vital with the transformations of politics in the media age. Wthout this past the parties would seem even thinner and less substantial. But so too would political journalism. My first day's report....

BOSTON, July 26: My first report from the convention has been delayed by severe tech problems, the search for a work space, and the general chaos of things in and around the Fleet Center.

But this has given me time to reflect on what Rebecca Blood said in her advisory to those blogging the convention: decide what role you want to play. I am going to try to make sense of this event by accepting none of the given interpretations, which do not make sense to me unless we are prepared to declare the proceedings absurd and pointless. Some are. I’m not.

For example, there’s Walter Mears, who addressed the bloggers breakast this morning. Mears is the legendary Associated Press reporter who has been covering campaigns for 46 years, and this year is doing a convention blog for the AP, even though he told us—rather absurdly—that he doesn’t know what a blog is, or what he’s doing with one. I asked Mears during the breakfast Q & A how much responsibility he thought the news media had for the decline of the conventions, which he had described for us in the usual terms— not news, just a big show, nothing that’s unscripted, and so on.

His answer was “none.” Zero responsibility goes to the press. It was the parties that had drained the conventions of meaning, surprise and purpose. In that case, I replied, why are 15,000 media people gathered here to report on something so transparently dumb? “It’s a class reunion,” said Mears, a big social event for the news tribe. (Chuckles from the crowd.)

This I’ve heard before, of course, but it’s an absurdist’s view. It amounts to saying: we have no reason, we’re just here. Upon this event, editors and news executives spend many thousands of dollars from precious editorial budgets. Do they really sit around saying: “Who are we going to send to the big class reunion this year? Who’s ready to party in Boston?” That’s even more absurd.

At the other end of the transaction Rod O’Connor, CEO of the Convention (and what a title that is…) took the floor at the bloggers breakfast and described to us what an enormous undertaking it was to transform the Fleet Center into a “studio for television, radio and the Internet.” Structural steel had to be added to the arena to support the lighting for the huge stage, which features two podiums and a seating section behind the speakers to mimic the look of a studio audience— game show and Oprah style. He even called the convention “a live television show,” and he seemed to find pride in that.

But this too is absurd because on television’s harsh terms the show has been a big flop— losing most of the audience to other shows, and losing the major networks for all but a few hours over four nights. The convention lacks a host—like Billy Crystal at the Oscars—who can connect with the audience, and thread the show with character. It is undistinguished as entertainment, and weak on narrative: no beginning, middle and end, no rising and falling action. It has all the plot structure of a parade: one thing after after another until the big floats—the acceptance speeches—are rolled by.

So if the convention is just a television show, it’s gotta go in the category of “planned to fail.” There is no pride in that. And considering how much planning is involved—a theme Rod O’Connor stressed for us—this description is too absurd for me. For the Democrats clearly want their convention to succeed. They do have pride. They think politics matters. They put a lot into this. But not enough to defend it against the requirements of television. At the same time, they aren’t willing to join up completely with the TV regime, for if they were then CEO O‘Connor—a young, bright and telegenic guy—wouldn’t put on this kind of show.

For one thing, he’d have his Billy Crystal, I mean the political version of that guy. Ben Affleck, Al Franken, Bill Maher, and of course Jon Stewart— these are some of the obvious choices. (Who’s yours? Hit the comment button, name your host, and I will feed the best ones back into this post.) My own pick is Meryl Streep. But who does O’Connor have doing it? Bill Richardson? That’s not television logic. It’s politics making casting decisions. Who in the world thinks that would work?

Wally Mears said many things amusing and one thing I found instructive: the convention, he said, retains much of its ancient, pre-video form even though it long ago emptied out all the old, “live” content and replaced it with a script. You have the same four nights, the same basic order of events, and it is still called a nominating convention even though the nomination has been won.

Mears is on to something: the conventions are a memory device. They convey events in the present tense backward in political time. (As Mears himself does when he talks to bloggers.) But they especially give the two major parties a storied past.

This purpose has become more important with the transformations of politics by media, for without this past the parties would be creatures even thinner and less substantial than they already seem. They would just be money-raising machines, job banks, and incumbency guarantors. It would be a lot easier to imagine replacing them, too.

Journalists sense this about conventions— the way they point backward. That is why they are continually describing the event by reference to what it once was and is no longer. Listen to Elizabeth Wolfe of the AP two weeks ago: “Unlike elections past, when the political meetings would enjoy gavel-to-gavel coverage, the conventions have become heavily orchestrated events and rarely the place of newsmaking.”

Hear that? The conventions have become, not “the conventions are becoming.” It’s like the event has a giant backwards arrow over its head: permanently. I mean 28 years—the length of time since the last unscripted event, according to Mears—is a long time for one master narrative, yes? But so does press treatment have this back arrow overhead, for the truth is pollitical journalism needs a past, too, subliminal roots that connect it to the history of the republic, give it a serious purpose in politics, and keep it from vanishing into the thinness of broadcast air.

As with the parties, this weighting of journalism by the past has become become even more important in the television age, which cannot guarantee the seriousness of news amid all the happy talk, and commercial hype. I wouldn’t say they are necessarily aware of it, but what editors and news executives are doing when they send crews to the conventions is claiming some roots in the republic, attempting to give themselves and their work some historical weight. And that aim is not inherently absurd.

It also beats “Who are we going to send to the class reunion this year?” as an explanation for continued press interest in the event.

Pointing the arrow backwards is one purpose of ritual, and if the conventions can no longer be understood as news events, they still make some (limited) sense as rituals in American politics. By telling the candidate’s story, they give that candidate a past linked to party. Thus the emphasis on introducing Kerry’s life. Because conventions echo back to “you shall not crucify this nation on a cross of gold,” they help produce the party of Lincoln (and Reagan) on one side, the party of Roosevelt (and Kennedy) on the other. They visually advertise the parties as fifty-state creatures, and vivify a continental nation made of united states.

But this is mostly a property of their form; the old contents have been drained. New contents to fit the age have not been found.

The giant backwards arrow helps explain the treatment of bloggers in Boston. (I said “helps.”) Despite small numbers, they are clearly a story, and it was a strange feeling to be sipping coffee at the bloggers breakfast, while in the back of the room sat a crowd of 15-20 reporters “watching” us get the welcome treatment from DNC officials— including appearences by shooting star Howard Dean and rising star Barack Obama. (Obama, who is an unusually confident politician, suggsted he might need blogging tips. So I shouted out: “write it yourself.” He said he would do that when he found 10-12 hours free per day.)

Why are the bloggers of such interest here? Well, a superficial answer would be that they are one of the few “new and different” things happening in 2004; therefore they are news, or at least a nice sidebar. But I think there’s a different and deeper answer. Over their heads the arrow points forward.

Blogging represents—at least for purposes of the convention narrative—what things are becoming. “The conventions have become…” is a tired story line. And that is one reason we bloggers ate breakfast today under the curious gaze of the press.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I must go listen to Bill Clinton address the party of Roosevelt and Kennedy.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links….

In the spirit of the gathering, I got permission to revise and extend my remarks. Thus: posted at 10:35 Monday night. Revised 2:35 am. If you can’t stay up late, why sleep over?

Live Blogging Experiment: The Ask. Since I am blogging the Democrats in the spirit of a friendly critic, and because I have many questions for him, I have asked if I can interview Convention CEO Rod O’Connor during the convention. The request went to Eric Schnure of the DNCC, our bloggers advocate. He said he would try and I should check back with him. I guess we’ll see what being credentialed means, but I hope Eric can get him, ansd I think he will. I plan to ask O’Connor about the ideas in this post, and then post the audio. So stay tuned for that.

UPDATE: here’s my audio interview with convention CEO Rod O’Connor.

The Revealer is a daily webzine that reviews religion and the press. (I’m the publisher, Jeff Sharlet is the editor.) See the ongoing campaign coverage forum, which asks the questiion: if religion reporters covered the presidential camopaign, what would be different? Contributions so far: Debra Mason’s “The ‘R’ Word”; Jason DeRose’s “Politics and the Religion Reporter: A Story”; Amy Sullivan’s “Religious Men”; Rod Dreher’s “The Non-Negotiable Dream”; Shahed Amanullah’s “Beyond the Zero-Sum Game.” My introductron is here.

Daniel Drezner:

Even though I’ve written about the ever-increasing connections between the blogosphere and mediasphere, I must also confess surprise at the intensity of coverage over the past few days. What’s going on?

Here’s a quick-and-dirty hypothesis — the media abhors a news vacuum, and a nominating conventions is one whopper of a news vacuum. There are no real surprises awaiting reporters in either Boston this week or New York come Labor Day. The only moderately interesting question this week is how well Edwards and Kerry deliver their speeches. Even that’s not news as much as interpretation.

This is a perfect scenario for the media to increase their coverage of blogs. They are an undeniably new facet of convention coverage, which makes them news. They’re a process story rather than a substance story, which the media likes to write about. Finally, one of the blogosphere’s comparative advantage is real-time snarky responses and interpretations of media events.

Majikthise (“Analytic philosophy and liberal politics”) make a shrewd observation. The journalist’s interest is in the credentialing of bloggers:

Extending press credentials to non-journalists is a bold move by mainstream political parties. Effectively, the subjects of news unilaterally expanded the media by extending access.

Journalists see themselves as professionals. Self-regulation is one of the distinctive features of a profession. Just as doctors reserve the right to decide who can practice medicine, many journalists feel entitled to decide who gets to make the news. Traditionally, press credentials have been earned by securing the approval of the press (i.e. getting hired by some acknowledged news source). This year, a handful of bloggers got the nod directly from the political parties.

Matt Stoller of BOP News on the convention calculus: “Protesters is lower than German TV is lower than domestic college newspapers is lower than bloggers is lower than mid-size print newspapers is lower than delegates is lower than B-list politicos is lower than cable is lower than networks is lower than A-list politicos is lower than Kerry.”

Jeff Jarvis turns the convention arrow around and points it forward. What does it look like then?

Jarvis has much more, so check into it.

A special thanks to Jessamyn Charity West, who is blogging the DNC at, for invaluable and cheerful assistance to a man in computer distress. She saved me.

Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy:

The three major broadcast TV networks are merely spinning lame excuses for why they will not be covering the national political conventions for more than a few hours this summer. It’s all “tightly scripted,” “it’s not interesting,” or there’s “no news,” they suggest. Meanwhile, the networks will show even less of the conventions than they did in 2000, continuing a sharp decline in coverage. Yet TV broadcasting will largely reap an unprecedented $1 billion or more from political ads sold this election season.

The Wall Street Journal has the convention bloggers introduce themselvees— nifty.

See PressThink’s earlier convention posts:

Posted by Jay Rosen at July 26, 2004 10:35 PM