Story location: http://archive.pressthink.org/2004/08/26/conv_sec.html
Cross posted to Sky Box, my convention weblog as a contributing writer for Knight-Ridder. See the welcome post here.
When I was in Boston, at the Fleet Center, covering the last convention, I spent time in the mornings walking around the arena, before it filled with conventioneers. Looking at the space when it was empty made it easier to see how it worked when the red light was on. The more I studied the set-up —what they built at the Fleet Center to “hold” the convention—the clearer it got.
Imagine taking a big knife and slicing the Fleet Center in two from the top. The building is now in cross section and it’s shown there are levels to the convention, a vertical order.
Level One, at the bottom, is the convention floor, assigned to the delegates, who are seated by states. (It crawls with journalists too, and those who have passes.)
Level Two is the podium, set on an enormous and expensive stage, and… directly across the way, on the arena’s opposte side, the big bank of television cameras, clustered for the head-on shot, and centered at mid-court.
Level Three: The print press have seats here, with bad views of the podium. Party VIP’s have seats here, with good views. The Kerry Convention, trying to look even more like a giant television studio, added seating directly behind the speaker— a “studio audience.” For the big speakers those seats were filled with cheering Democrats and an Oprah effect was created. Highly synthetic.
Level Four has the Network Sky Boxes, which I wrote about in my last post.
Studying this arrangement meant checking in at different times of day. Visit “the floor” during the evening when the convention is on, and no matter how close you get to the podium, in feet and inches, it always seems far away, the speaker somehow remote, the vibe traveling elsewhere, not at you. People on the floor may be listening to the podium, but the podium—and the convention program—is hardly ever listening to people on the floor.
The podium, on Level Two, talks to others on Level Two— the cameras across the way, the directors backstage. Negotiating the floor during the event’s peak hours, I constantly had the sensation that I was walking under a power line, or a bridge, and that a busy highway ran over us as we went about the business of “the floor.”
In fact it was television and politics hooking up overhead, as the camera and the podium connected along sight lines worked out in advance. For the organizers, Level Two is where the convention happened for keeps. Two is the where the silent alchemy of politics went on, and where the money shots (“look, the party is united”) were taken. On Two is where the event had to come into focus, or remain unfixed.
On Level Two a kind of live current was available between “convention” and “nation.” That was the thinking built into the Fleet Center. This current ran across the arena, over the heads of the people at floor level. It was something transacted between the podium and the camera, which talked sense to one another.
The other Levels seem to know this. When you’re a delegate you understand without being told that the convention is going on “above” you. Sitting in your section, you may try to pay attention to the program and its message. I did. But you soon get the sense that it’s angled elsewhere, even though the speakers are, in the political fiction of the thing, addressing you and the people nearby.
Of course, it wasn’t always so. There was a time when the mysteries of politics were transacted right there on the floor. Between the podium and the milling delegates ran the live current. For they were “the nation,” or as near as the party could come to representing itself that way.
When television came along, it took the action up one level, and the people on the floor became a studio audience. The people at home were the nation, looking in on what the Democrats were up to. But who says that pattern—and its fictions—have to last? Now we have the Internet. It has information users more than it has an audience.
I may try it, just to see what response I get. I may slip into an elevator at Madison Square Garden and catch the eye of someone who looks to be in charge: “Excuse me, but could you perhaps tell me… What floor is the convention on?”
Ouch… Readers have been e-mailing me about it. Jack Shafer of Slate, in an extended (and quite interesting) reflection on why we don’t have A.J. Liebling-style press critics, gets around to observing:
Liebling invented, almost from scratch, the journalistic genre of literary press critic, but because he wrote as well as he did he seems to have closed the door on the way out. Liebling’s literary vision is too vivid to imitate, and it’s hard to imagine someone trumping it. So, instead of producing the next Liebling, the field of journalism saddles us with the worry-bead analysis of Tom Rosenstiel and the goo-goo intentions of Jay Rosen, for which there is no audience outside the industry. (Maybe not even inside it.) Daily newspapers, which employ art critics, film critics, dance critics, car critics, book critics, music critics, restaurant critics, and architecture critics by the millions rarely put press critics on staff, leaving the job of press criticism mostly to alternative weeklies, partisan organizations such as FAIR on the left and the Media Research Center on the right, think tanks, and academia.
For those not familiar with the dialects in journalism, “goo goo” is short for good government types, reformers, virtue-crats— always humorless, usually clueless, and quite infantile in their basic understanding of things, though they want to improve them. Thus: “goo-goo intentions.”
Jack Shafer, The Church of Liebling: The uncritical worshippers of America’s best press critic.
From back in September, PressThink: Spokesman for Press Priesthood Laughs. “Jack Shafer of Slate says public journalism bombed. Here’s what I say back to him.”
The Wall Street Journal profiles the fifteen officially credentialled bloggers for the Republican National Convention: Meet the Bloggers, Part Two (Aug. 26)