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July 30, 2004

Al Queda Also Came to the Convention.

I wrote this in Boston, Friday morning, and posted it when I got back. I wanted to get it down before the feeling faded and I was back in a base line normal environment. Anyway, it's about how the "security" situation in Boston was the great overlooked story of the convention.

LEAVING BOSTON, July 30. Thanks to all who left comments during this fascinating ordeal of “covering” the convention. I really appreciated them. I’m not sure why, but there was something very powerful about reading comments at your weblog when you are away— on assignment, as it were. Even if the words are completely impersonal and abstract, it’s a more intimate feeling to read ‘em. I will have to investigate it more.

Tim, a loyal PressThink reader, said in one comment: Tell us about the parties. Fair enough. I attended one, the o-fficial bloggers bash put on by the DCCC, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, at a pretty hip place in Charlestown. I got the sense it was a coveted invitation. Big joint, crowded, lots of scene-making that had nothing to do with bloggers; it was people who had shitty jobs at the convention trying to redeem their trip by having a great time at the reasonably IN party.

On the other hand, lots of comrades in arms were meeting each other as the worlds of tech, blogging, Dean style politics, publishing, and so on came together. The bloggers were the special guests, and maybe 65 percent of the crowd couldn’t have cared less what the excuse for the Bash was. All had a good time. Fancy but modernist bar, restaurant. Ended at 2.

The bloggers got this special wristband, green, when they came in. I wasn’t paying attention when someone put it on me, because it was just another security check, number 1,227 of the trip.

Anyway, I am enjoying my first chance to even have a drink, and so consume a few Vodka and somethings, lose a few to roaming drink pickers, and then I notice everyone else is paying for their alcohol. The wristband had been communicating to the bartender and the whole free drink thing—which made it a Bloggers Bash, you see—was going on “above” me, which is unfortunate, because I could have enjoyed this little status marker and would have bought more drinks for more people, had I known. That was a wasted opportunity.

On wasted opportunities: No one asked me about the “security” drama in Boston.

I think it is the great overlooked story in all the reporting done from the DNC— and for the obvious reason. It was in your face, nonstop, in thousands of ways inside what was called, in military terms, The Perimeter. Who could “see” it? It came lunging at you as you approached the site and enveloped all when you were on site. You could have your credentials checked twenty times on a single trip from the ground floor to your seats.

Security. It was all about insecurity, really. It was telling us that we live in a different world than the last time there was a poltiical convention. If there needed to be something “new” to report, it was not, by god, the bloggers. It was this: the reason we needed all this security. This subject not only spoke of politics, but world politics, and not in any abstract way, but in every way a person can experience life. What was all this security about? And who authored it? Ultimately, Al Queda did. So things had to stop short of ultimately.

That was a story I think we missed. The unbelievably out-in-force Security—double searches, forced to walk through pens made of wire, and much, much more—was like a stream of data telling us a lot about the state of the nation, the state of the world, and, yes, the seriousness of this election, and of the convention itself.

But conventions aren’t built to handle all this psychic traffic; the security perimeter militarizes your mind and sets you on edge. Once you are “through” it you want to be through with it, and you have loads of work to do. Normalcy takes over, life before 09/11 regains itself.

I think all 30,000 of us missed the story of what the security invasion was telling us about the national condition, which is bound up with other nations on the globe we live on, and actors beyond that category, too. But that would lend an out-of-control and unintentional gravity to proceedings that are supposed to be fun and rah-rah.

The security situation, which dominated the event (but the event had to suppress it) was trying to tell us a story, which it is the job of politics and political leaders to articulate. Journalists and bloggers too. It internationalized an event that needed it, and if Kerry were a creative leader, now, on his way to power, he would have had a bit of the outside world piped into convention hall. Outside the United States, that is— a little more of it than usual (since the usual is none) just to make a point. We live in a different world, and a President has to tell the people that.

Had any orator, even someone’s governor, dared to touch it—by calling attention to our surroundings, especially the brutally ugly Free Speech Zone, but also the endless checks and “high alert” atmosphere—pointed it out, and reflected on the obvious, then we would have been thrown immediately into a situation where words are deeds, and the right ones re-make the situation, and right there one’s case for leadership might have been put.

But it didn’t happen, and it couldn’t. For it would have required us to admit it: Al Queda also came to the convention.

After Matter: Notes, reactions and links…

Chris Lydon did an audio interview with me about the convention, the bloggers and what it all meant— over at BOP News.

Liz Halloran, Slogging Through Convention Blogs, Hartford Courant (July 29)

“Bloggers have written their way into the mainstream and the media may never be the same,” The Wall Street Journal enthused in an article Tuesday.

Not so fast.

For readers of the 30-plus individual weblogs represented at the convention, the bloggers’ promise of fresh convention views, irreverent analysis and a commitment to tell smaller, personal stories has fallen short. Way short.

Instead, a reader slogging through the blogs for convention news not in their daily newspaper will find breathless reports of television-personality sightings (Tim Russert! Wolf Blitzer! Judy Woodruff!), awed accounts along the lines of I-can’t-believe-I’m-actually-here, and obsessive self-analysis. Not to mention observations like this, from “Bill Clinton looks really small from the upper tiers of the FleetCenter.”

One of the ironies Halloran does not appreciate is that her article reviewing the performance of blogs contains no links, so readers cannot check her reading against their own. (No email address for Halloran, either.) However, a reader does find a link at the bottom to the Courant’s archives, which of course are a pay service: “All users of the service may search through the archives, but if you want to view the full text of any articles, charges will apply.”

Jeff Greenfield of CNN grasps the point— the one about linking. He e-mails TV Newser (formerly Cable Newser) about why blogging is a new stage in political dialogue:

“I’ve been hanging out in the blogosphere for quite awhile,” Greenfield says. “I started with Kaufiles out of Slate, and followed his links to a whole bunch of sites, including Instapundit, Andrew Sullivan, Buzzmachine, Dailykos, Talking Points, and, of course, Wonkette. I think the real-time quality to the opinions, corrections, and other voices is terrific; when someone makes a reference to another voice, says ‘read the whole thing’ and lets you link to the other voice, it’s a breakthrough in political dialogue. Unlike some of my colleagues, I don’t fear the lack of editorial control, because there’s a self-correcting mechanism at work, and if peopel don’t like the tone of the blogs, there’s still plenty of traditional media around. My big complaint is that it’s forced me to get up earlier to read all this stuff—including yours.”

Matt Stoller in comments here: “I heard from numerous reporters that the security was no more intense than it was in 2000.” Matt Welch in comments at Jeff Jarvis’s Buzzzmachine: “One reason why that story wasn’t reported much, was that the overt signs of security — length of time getting into the convention, cops running maneuvers on the street, clashes between protesters and police — were significantly less hard-ass than they were in L.A. in 2000. No doubt Al Qaeda changed the security picture, especially in terms of stuff you couldn’t see overhead or in the harbor, but as for day-to-day security hassles there were so much less so as to be almost unrecognizable.”

Alex Williams in the New York Times (Aug. 1): Blogged in Boston: Politics Gets an Unruly Spin:

…Meanwhile, the traditional news media chewed over what the arrival of online commentators — mostly untrained journalists whose stock in trade is the sharp opinion, often quippy — meant to the political process. “Obviously, the official media don’t quite know how to deport themselves in relation to the blogs,” said Orville Schell, dean of the graduate journalism program at the University of California, Berkeley. “If they adopt them, it’s like having a spastic arm — they can’t control it. But if they don’t adopt it, they’re missing out on the newest, edgiest trend in the media.”

…Perhaps the greatest achievement of the bloggers was to create what the Democrats would like to see come November — a Blue State nation. On television the party depicted itself as moving toward the center. But to follow the proceedings online was to burrow, link by link, deeper beneath the blankets of ideological fellowship. On LiberalOasis, for example, one found dozens of links to like-minded warriors, among them The American Prospect and a Web site called Class Struggle. In cyberspace, left-leaning bloggers have managed to create an America where Republicans simply don’t exist, at least as anything more than useful abstractions — like Eurasia and Eastasia in “1984.”

No wonder, then, that even the Democratic heavyweights are trying to sneak inside. The Kerry-Edwards campaign now has a blog of its own. Barack Obama, the Senate candidate from Illinois, has a blog. In fact, he even showed up at a blogger’s breakfast on Monday and asked for tips. He got what he asked for from Jay Rosen, chairman of the journalism department at New York University, who runs the PressThink blog. The advice, shouted out, could not have been more blog, or less Washington:

“Write it yourself!”

By the way, Obama’s reply was: “As soon as I find 10-12 free hours in a day, I will.”

Danah Boyd in Salon, July 28:

Blogging will not replace traditional journalism, but it presents a threat to the normative press culture and an opportunity for radical reporting. Bloggers do place the issue of professionalism under attack, not by being unprofessional, but by exposing the ways in which the media operates. As blogging reaches the masses, people are introduced to information that was not reported because it did not suit the party line. Bloggers will happily document the power games that they witness in the press room and will expose future Jayson Blairs. Bloggers also capture information that the mainstream press does not yet realize is valuable, which means that ambitious and digitally minded journalists are constantly scanning the blogs for information. More and more, journalists are thanking bloggers for new slants. The competition between journalists and bloggers for readers’ attention results in more diverse and compelling coverage.

Bloggers at the Democratic National Convention signify a shift in media, but not a replacement for mainstream coverage. Their role will be to fill in the gaps, expose the underlying magic, and keep everyone on their toes. What they are doing cannot be compared to journalism; it can only be described as blogging.

Jessica Bram, writing at Westport Now, July 29:

The Fleet Center convention site is a fortress surrounded by concrete barricades, check points, and eagle-eyed screeners…

It all comes off as somewhat unreal to someone raised during the complacent post-World War II years of safety and comfort. The “It-could-never-happen-here” notion that I grew up with was as familiar and certain as the Pledge of Allegiance and the yellow school bus that stopped at the corner, rain or shine…

It drives home the point that this extreme level of security in place at the Democratic National Convention is happening to us back home in Westport just as much as it is here in Boston. This is a dead-serious proposition. Because what’s being protected here this week, first and foremost, is our nation’s most fundamental and cherished ritual: the peaceful and orderly transition of government.

This process that we undergo every four years, which is the foundation of our democracy, is a rare thing in this unmanageable world. And we know it. We can endure the loss of buildings, and even the loss of lives. But never that.

Posted by Jay Rosen at July 30, 2004 5:45 PM