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E-Media Tidbits from the Poynter Institute is group blog by some of the sharper writers about online journalism and publishing. A good way to keep up

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July 28, 2004

Convention Wisdom From the CEO: Day Two With the Democrats

I went to see Rod O'Connor, CEO of the convention. And I asked him a lot of "why" questions. (Including why he's called CEO.) He has a coherent story. That doesn't mean wholly convincing, only that it holds together what's happening this week in the Fleet Center. His view of what political conventions are? Message delivery over multiple platforms, with television yet the biggest deliverer. But that too is a convention-- of thought. It can change.

BOSTON, JULY 27. On day two of the Democratic Convention I did a number of things toward my aim of figuring this event out, while refusing aid from the usual interpretations, which I earlier called absurdist when you try to follow their reasoning.

For those at home, and those at the Fleet Center, there are two conventions going on.

There’s the Democratic National Convention, put on by the Democratic Party, and there’s all the conventional thinking about what an event like this is—and what it is for—put on by the party, the press, and all who speak as media-savvy pundits, pro and amateur. So one kind of convention features the Democrats meeting in Boston. The other features conventions of the mind.

The event swarming around me this week, a political convention, would not look, sound, or feel anything like the one in Boston, were it not for those “other” conventions—the ways we commonly think and talk about the event—coming into play.

David Weinberger, blogging for himself and the Boston Globe, pointed to one of the other type conventions, very much a factor in what’s happening this week: The [DNC] folks think their job is to script an event for the news media, and the news media don’t want to cover an event that’s been scripted.” If either party altered its view (which would take imagination) the conventions might be a different animal.

Seeking to know more about how the planners and organizers think through their creation, I went to see Rod O’Connor, the CEO of the convention, whose job is to make it happen, and whose art is putting it all together so that the convention “works” by a certain date.

Now this would be challenging enough if O’Connor really was the chief executive— if he held that office. In fact, he is an officer who executes decisions made by the Big Generals: the candidate’s advisors, the party apparatus, Terry McAuliffe, the Convention Committee and various heavyweights, the heaviest of all being John Kerry because he won.

This makes pulling it off all the more impressive, because an entire layer of difficulty is added to the “CEO” job: the politics going on above his pay grade, which he must interpolate into an event that has its own interior politics, the politics of the job site, and all the factions and interests, means and skills that need to come together in a rush, never to work again in that combination. On top of those two forms, O’Connor has to be vitally concerned with the bigger politics going on— namely, the election battle itself.

Someone with triple responsibilities like that needs to be clear in his mind about what the convention is, and this is what I intended to discover in our exchange. Not “how it works,” but how the convention thinks. O’Connor would know a lot about that, I figured.

And he did. In fact, he had a coherent story of what the convention is, how it works, what it’s for. O’Connor’s story, which, by the nature of his job, has to be a conventional understanding in which many players can share, begins with a proposition about us— the Americans out there who may vote or stay home in November, tune in or avoid the show in July.

Americans, the convention holds, “get their political information” (that’s the magic phrase) from many places, many more than existed in the 1960s and 70s. As political information getters, we have developed strangely fractured habits. Some of us, it appears, get our political information from sources that say to us: get your political information here!

Others get their political information from sources that say: we’re comedy, they’re news. Still others, we know, are getting their political information from entertainment, just as some get their iron through diet and don’t need to take the tablets. Some—growing numbers—do their getting of information on the Internet.

So this is how O’Connor’s convention story opens: Americans are busy getting their political information all over the place. The Democrats have urgent information for us—the “message” of their convention, which has to be gotten out—and so, knowing how we get it, they endeavor to give it the way its gotten.

Bloggers! A lot of people are getting their political information from bloggers. Let’s have ‘em. Comedy! Roll out the carpet for the Daily Show; that’s how people get information about politics these days. Talk radio! The halls of the Fleet Center were converted into work spaces for talk radio, which operated in full public view— host, technicians and equipment, all crammed into a few feet of space stolen from the corridors, which buzz with people traffic all the time. Side-by-side open air studios are a kind of radio Calcutta, but… it’s another way Americans are getting their information about politics.

Now the word information gets tired from all the sense-making it has to do, so other nouns sub in as the story unwinds: news, message, agenda, discussion, are slotted in from time to time. To illustrate, here’s a section of the interview where O’Connor is arguing that it’s all too easy to say the conventions have “declined” from a time when the media meant three television networks and the print press. (Which is a fair point.)

O’Connor: The communications media… have evolved since that time, and I think the conventions have had to evolve along with it. People turn these things on right now and they’re used to getting their news in different ways than they were when they sat there and watched Walter Cronkite tell you “that’s the way it is” at the end of the day.

Things happen a lot faster. You have to grab people’s attention in a different way than you used to… If we left it at a stoic stage, and, you know, just one sort of speech after another, I think our viewership would have declined even more significantly than it has.

JR: Right. I’m not comparing the conventions to the 50s and asking why they aren’t like that. I’m comparing them to the terms you set— it’s a television program. Other special events like this—let’s say the Academy Awards—have survived a multi-channel universe and still have very large audiences.

O’Connor: Totally different animal though.

JR: It is a different animal, but the transformation into a television show certainly means you have to try and hold the television audience, right? And I don’t see how that’s happened. Last night’s ratings were a 5 share on the major networks? So I’m wondering: I understand the logic of why you made the conventions television-friendly. But television has been so un-friendly that it doesn’t seem like much of a mutual contract there.

O’Connor: The way that people get their information today— still predominately television. It would be great if everybody read the New York Times cover to cover every morning, but predominately it’s from television, and that’s how they get their information… I think we have to recognize that reality— [but] not exclusively. Which is why we have brought bloggers into this convention. It’s why we’ve done some of the other things. It’s why you see 170 radio positions down on the fourth and the first floor…

The difference in looking at the conventions and comparing them to a show like the Academy Awards, like the Super Bowl or something else like that: Those are shows that are bought by networks, where a producer has absolute control over what you are going to see, and appear on one network channel… So, yes, we own a smaller share on each of those networks, but in the aggregate our number’s much higher because we’re on more places on the dial, which is part of our effort: more places on the Net, more places on the dial, more places on the air.

Secondly: politics. There’s a very fine line to be walked, a very careful line to be walked, between engaging people’s interest by doing some of the things we do that are good for television here, and having a real discussion about the real issues before the country. You can do things at a Super Bowl halftime show that if you did at a convention, people wouldn’t take seriously…

We might make a video to try and explain an issue on health care. At the Academy Awards a video that’s a biographical piece is going to make it onto television. Here it doesn’t. So it’s a different environment. And we have to find the balance between making this the most effective communications tool it can be but still delivering the serious message of this election.

O’Connor’s story I said was coherent. That doesn’t mean wholly convincing, only that it holds together as a verson of what’s happening in the Fleet Center. In fact, it’s the conventional view of what political conventions are and realistically must be— message delivery over multiple platforms, with television being the “biggest” deliverer because it still has the biggest audience, even after history shrank it.

But this story has a flattening effect on the convention’s actual contents and the observable facts when you walk around at the events. Virtually anything—from keynotes to key chains to truth claims, attack ads and balloon drops—can be called “political information,” but this is so abstract it’s almost a metaphysics of the event. (Managerial language is often like that, a fact more easily recognized by its victims than by natural speakers of the dialect.)

I asked Rod O’Connor about his title:

JR: What does a CEO of a convention do? Why are you called a chief executive officer, as opposed to a director or manager or many other titles that would suggest perhaps the world of politics instead of the corporate world?

O’Connor: A very good question, and one I’m not sure I know the answer to. I know that my predecessors were called CEO, and therefore am I.

JR: Does it originate with—what—the Olympics? That kind of thing—- you don’t know.

O’Connor: I don’t know. I know at least the last three people, three conventions have had the title CEO.

But then he went on to give a very good description of what his job is really about: “On Thursday night when John Kerry stands up there and gives his speech, you know that’s our Super Bowl, that’s it, that’s what this whole thing is about. And it’s my job to make sure we get to that point, the air is clear and everything’s focused on him that night.”

The air is clear. I love that phrase. This actually does make sense of the convention: three nights of advertisement, celebration and build up before The Big Speech on the fourth, which does matter and may draw 30 million or so Americans to their sets. But they won’t be there to watch a show or receive a message or get their daily intake of political information.

Their interest will be deeper than that.

On Tuesday morning I encountered one of the most effective acts of political protest I have seen in a while. It took imagination. Organizers—the American Friends Service Committee—laid out upon the grass in Copley Square 907 pairs of black boots, arranged in rank and file like a missing army at attention. Earlier in the week it was done at Boston Common. (Newsweek: “A Grid of Empty Boots.”)

They were protesting the American deaths in Iraq, and so their statement was anti-war. It was also about beauty, loss, the unsayable and the ineffable; and it made an implicit comment on the ugliness—the brutality—of the Free Speech Zone near the Fleet Center, which is so unlike the free spaces of a healthy democracy that protesters have declined even to enter it.

Now we could say, if we wanted to be levelers, that the boot arrangers had a “message,” and sought to deliver it. But that would be ugly, and this was beautiful, and whether you agreed with it or not it spoke in a human way. Message-speak is different. It pounds. It repeats. It drills the point home, then softens the drilling with sentimentality, good lighting, and proper camera angles. If Kerry gives a great speech Thursday night it will be by finding within himself the highest common denominator a Democrat can reach and remain within the party. The conventions know television. But what does television know about that?

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links….

Listen Here… to my audio interview with Rod O’Connor, CEO of the Democratic National Convention, July 27, 2004. My first audio post. It’s 14 minutes, MP3 format, and my questions are hard to hear, editing is crude. O’Connor comes through loud and clear. Next time I will do better.

Background is an earlier post: For Party and Press, the Conventions Are A Memory Device.

To manage the operation in Boston, McAuliffe announced Rod O’Connor as the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the 2004 Convention. Having served as the COO of the 2000 Convention in Los Angeles, O’Connor is widely credited with successfully managing relations with Los Angeles city officials and all Democratic constituencies as well as directing over a thousand convention staff and volunteers. DNC Presss Release, July 28, 2003

A Prince of a Techie: A big blogger’s thank you to Ethan Ehrenberg, Instructional Technololgy Specialist at New York University, who showed great patience with a clumsy student and prepared me to do audio blogging in Boston.

Dan Rather talks to the Dallas Morning News about conventions, dealing with many of the same ideas O’Connor did:

“At one time they were kind of like the Super Bowl in a presidential campaign year,” he said. “They’re now like a preseason NFL game. … In this almost catatonic state, conventions will disappear unless somebody in one party at least decides to rethink them and bring them back in a form where they matter. If we were on for three hours a night, in a lot of places a test pattern would get better ratings.”

Mr. Rather has a few remedies in mind to save the conventions from themselves. The most provocative: “Put them up for bids to make them a special television event. It may be to the parties’ benefit not to have the conventions spread over so many channels. The National Basketball Association doesn’t do that with their playoff games.”

Posted by Jay Rosen at July 28, 2004 9:49 AM   Print


You were obviously a tad anxious before you hit Boston about finding a raison d'etre. If the piece with the Convention CEO is any indication, you've found your voice. Fascinating. Just one suggestion on your approach -- don't try to digest too much right now. You'll have lots of time between the 2 conventions to do a first cut and then another after the RNC. Not saying you did too much digesting in this story, just keep it immediate, experimental/exploratory, or to coin a phrase, the "real deal."

As for stuff to cover, observations about connecting the national effort with the state/local would be interesting. Ultimately, it comes down to electoral votes and House and Senate races. That's where the party as an institution may retain more significance than at the national level, where they may seem more like "money-raising machines, job banks, and incumbency guarantors" (in your words from Monday).

Posted by: lady c at July 28, 2004 10:40 AM | Permalink

If you aren't familiar with fractals, please learn about them. A coastline is a fractal pattern -- no matter how much you magnify the image, the complexity of the original is exhibited in the fragment.

A Convention works fractally -- an event of events, each event of which consists of further, smaller events. So, wherever the lens points you will find interesting complexity. That plays to blogs because in one instance focus can be on the meta and the next instance on the micro.

Successful blogs will entertain us with instances out of that complexity, but it will be the measure of usefulness that I will be looking for in better blogs -- because that will show leadership.

Posted by: sbw at July 28, 2004 1:27 PM | Permalink

For me as a viewer, the conventions are (or at least should be) a condensed version of the campaign. It's fine, even good, if they're hyperscripted because I want to see the very best, most polished, most well thought out face of the party that I can get. During the long months (and months... and months... and months...) of the campaign, ideas come and go, are hacked into soundbites, are buried by events and trivia, and become muddied as the parties struggle over them. I want a clear picture of what the parties' top values are, and I want it straight from the horse's mouth. A carefully presented convention gives me that. The convention creates a reference point that gathers (or should gather) all the diverse themes of a campaign into one, easy-to-find place, and maybe even just a few easy-to-find speeches. As an added bonus, it serves as a Who's Who of the party.

The convention may well be nothing more than a big show, but I want to see the show. I'm not going to sit down and watch it start to finish (not having a TV makes that hard, anyway), but I will catch the big speeches on the next day, and I want to know what the other speakers had to say. Part of journalism's function is to tell the people who couldn't experience the actual event what went on, and the vast majority of what went on consisted of carefully polished and prepared speeches. A few quotes from those speeches really isn't enough. I would like to see a source that did point-by-point, coherent outlines of what each speaker said. I'm not saying every news outlet should do that, of course -- analysis, describing the atmosphere, etc. are important -- but as far as I can tell no one does detailed summaries of what I tune in to watch. Paper readers trying to figure out what the speakers said can either pick up fragmented quotes and very general glosses in the reports on the event, or they can find a way to watch/read the whole thing. There isn't much in between. Granted, I can think of quite a few reasons why this is the case, but the fact remains that traditional reporting is missing a large piece of the puzzle.

Posted by: ErikaEM at July 28, 2004 3:27 PM | Permalink

Your characterization of O'Connor's view of citizens -- as "political information getters" --is revealing of just how committed he is to the "transmission" idea of media -- as opposed to the "ritual" idea -- you wrote about a few days ago. It's also a clue as to why conservatives have been so successful at convincing a great number of people that all liberals are "elites," and why those same liberals are confused by the label. They just want to "give" something they think the public wants to "get." They are, in their own minds, populists. And the media -- which isn't very liberal -- adheres to this same pattern, giving credence to conservative charges that don't distinguish between the medium and the message. Which should be no surprise -- McLuhan has become a saint of the evangelical right.

Posted by: Jeff Sharlet at July 28, 2004 4:53 PM | Permalink

Johnny Appleseed...

Your premises are ill-founded and, even if they did, your conclusions do not logically follow from them.

Have a nice day.


Posted by: sbw at July 28, 2004 9:37 PM | Permalink

Jay, I think ErikaEM makes a good point. The convention allows the political party to groupthink about their past, their principles/values/core beliefs, and where they need to make progress/change.

While that is occuring, there is a strategy of unity and identity being tested in front of the cameras of the press and television employing the tactics of glitz, glamour, rhetoric and moderation.

So far, I have not read much in your observations of the PressThink at the convention. Perhaps that cannot be blogged in real time, and will be processed and provided after the convention.

For example, did Teresa's tit-for-tat with Colin McNickle put some aspect of PressThink in plain view as the narrative shifted from her denial and accusations over what she said, to was it civil, and then did he deserve it?

How is PressThink, and the bias for conflict, balancing the television show facade of hope and happiness with the suppression of venom for victory?

Posted by: Tim at July 29, 2004 9:47 AM | Permalink

Appleseed: "I think the liberal philosophy operates on reason, and the other side from dogma. The facts bear that out."

While it is true that I cannot know what you think, so you may be correct that you think it, it is not correct to assume either that the liberal philosophy -- as demonstrated by those who propose to follow it -- operates on reason and that the "other side" does not.

First of all, you paint with too broad a brush. Such gross generalizations are not useful and trivialize thoughtful opposition. That you trivialize thoughtful opposition alone is enough to undercut your premise that you operate on reason.

So, while I don't need to go further, what I find intriguing about those of your persuasion is that they THINK they operate on reason when it doesn't stand up to even casual scrutiny. What is more, they go theatric when one explains to them what they have done. That, too, is, I hate to say, unreasonable.

So. Let's set this aside and try to come to substantive understanding of the valuable insights offered from all sides.

Posted by: sbw at July 29, 2004 10:21 AM | Permalink

Jay, you are doing wonderful stuff here. You've really hit your stride and are adding a great deal. I love it.

Posted by: Roger Karraker at July 29, 2004 2:04 PM | Permalink

"We need to turn back some of the creeping, un-Pennsylvanian and sometimes un-American traits that are coming into some of our politics," - Teresa Heinz Kerry

"No, I didn't say that, I did not say 'activity' or 'un-American.' Those were your words." - Teresa Heinz Kerry

Colin McNickle's column.

Video of the exchange.

Hyper-rational bais hunter demonstrating a paranoid style?

"It was a moment of extreme frustration aimed at a right wing rag that has consistently and almost purposefully misrepresented the facts when reporting on Mrs. Heinz Kerry." - Marla Romash, Heinz Kerry's spokeswoman

Ad hominem circumstantial?:

CNN: It is owned by Richard Mellon Scaife, who has donated millions to conservative causes.

James O'Toole, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: The newpaper's publisher, Richard Mellon Scaife, is a longtime contributor to conservative causes, among them, the Capitol Research Center, a right-wing think tank that has been critical of some of the philanthropic activity of the Heinz family charities guided by Heinz Kerry.

Is the premise an unvarnished feminist or that the candidate's wife is not the candidate? Is it that female judicial nominees are being filibustered or that a billionaire opinionated female (former Republican by marraige) Democrat is being persecuted? Is it that media moguls contribute to Republicans or that (even mob connected) media moguls contribute to Democrats?

Is the premise really all about the word choice: traits, acts or activities?

Seems like an heroic struggle over the transmitted message(s), and all initiated by a confrontation between a journalist and pseudo-politico.

Just imagine if it had been a blogger that had asked the question. I mean, really, think about it.

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