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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