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July 29, 2004

PressThink's Critical Viewers Guide For Tonight's Speech

Actually, you're all capable of viewing and judging John Kerry's speech for yourself. This is a guide to what anchors, pundits, experts and analysts will be telling you before and after.

Boston, July 29: A few things to keep in mind and watch for…

Dialect of the Pros: The most common dialect in discussing election contests is message-speak. Here’s Juan Williams of NPR showing his fluency in it:

The point is to send a winning message to loyal democrats, and the roughly 20 percent of voters whose presidential vote might still be influenced… The bottom line for the success of the convention is whether a clear message gets through… The message is crafted to reach the ears of voters in critical swing states, such as Ohio and Florida, where the presidential election is likely to be decided… To clear the way for a positive message, this convention must also be an exercise in political restraint…

Message speak is reductive— therefore easy. It invites citizens into politics as amateur tacticians. And in the discussion of a speech it confuses intention—which might indeed be to “send” this or that signal—with communication, a more complicated, fluid and human thing.

The pundit or analyst who talks about message-sending on the politician’s end ultimately has to talk about message-receiving on the public’s end. That is why message-speak goes hand in hand with polling results. Thus Juan Williams in that same report asserted: “One measure of the convention’s success will be the so called bounce in the national polls that Kerry gets after the convention.”

What to do? After the contribution of any pundit or expert ask yourself: what is it that I am supposed to do with that information just given? If you actually try to answer it—instead of assuming there’s nothing you can do—it will shed some light on what you were just told.

The Only Voters: Watch for how the swing voters become the only voters in the election-year calculus.

Transition Tunes: I always pay attention to the music the networks use in their lead-ins and lead-outs. Where does this music come from and what does it say?

The split public. One of the odder features of election “analysis” on television is that it talks to one part of the public—you, if you’re listening—about what another part of the public, presumably the ones not watching, might be influenced by or react to. This split public invites the viewer into the booth as member of the cognoscenti, a subject with a mind, and treats others as “masses,” the object of political technique— masses are the target. And technique is overwhelming the political language of choice on television. In fact, very few discussions are allowed that are not about technique. So watch for the split public. It’s one of the ways television tries to get you on its side, and convince you that you are smart for watching it.

UPDATE, 1:11 AM. Well, it’s a good thing bloggers don’t have bosses because then I would have to explain to mine how I got locked out on the job. I mean locked out of the Fleet Center, with the Secret Service at the door, saying: no way. Fire Marshalls closed the place down after it got too crowded and no one could return until almost midnight. I went to visit the media tent (free, wretched food, if you know where to look) and found I could not get back in.

So I watched the speech on television with the press.

It was very crowded in the arena, but the reason was politics: “getting passes” is politics, and the Democratic Party had a lot of politcs to do, so it gave out a lot of passes. One could sense in the crowds that about 10,000 political chips were being cashed in one night. The danger wasn’t fire; it was sweat.

Not only is the Fleet Center not designed for that many people, it’s not really designed for people, period. It’s an example of concrete giving instructions to men. The Fleet Center got an F, even before the chip cashing. The Fleet Center has no rhyme. The Fleet Center has no reason. The Fleet center—unbelievably—has no food. A Fleet Center is a terrible thing to inflict on a proud city. But I have to say: it rocked for politics and it was rockin for Kerry when I left it, and my pass went dead.

Anyway, I hope those who made it here found my viewers’ tips helpful in some way. There was to be more, but the Fire Marshalls said no.

Posted by Jay Rosen at July 29, 2004 8:48 PM