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August 27, 2004

"None of us knows what this is going to turn into. By everyone’s hope, it won’t be Chicago 1968."

For TV news, the concern is not how to cover all the possible protests around town. It's "inciting disruptive behavior by showing up with cameras." And it's losing control of the convention telecast to events outside. There are jittery people in the networks, trying not to be the cause of anything.

A general sense of foreboding has emerged among prominent political TV reporters who are bracing for the hottest political convention since 1968.Newsday report, Aug. 26.

A couple of reminders this week of just how politicized the territory has become around the major media. There’s a rise in tensions as we get closer to the convention countdown in New York.

On Tuesday (Aug. 24) TV Newser reported that the area around Fox News Headquarters in New York City had received concrete fortifications.

Security concerns have led Rockefeller Center to position fixtures outside Fox News headquarters ahead of the GOP convention. “About 12 large round concrete fixtures doubling as oversized flower pots were positioned in front of the Fox News studios on 6th Avenue” recently, an e-mailer says. “These are obviously positioned to prevent any vehicles from the street to jump the sidewalk and get close to the building.”

Fox News is one of the sites around New York City where a prudent police force might expect trouble— because of what it stands for, and in alignment with. Media sites are political sites, especially in Fox’s case, which means there’s a potential for violence but also for political expression.

That’s what the oversized flower pots in front of Fox News are saying: Harden the perimeter. We may see “activity” around the building.

Meanwhile the city is expecting there to be protest all over, but no one knows what to expect when it comes to big marches and other street demonstrations. So imagination is free to operate. The New York Observer’s Joe Hagan reports this week that for TV news organizations, the main concern is not how to cover all the possible protests around town. It’s “inciting disruptive behavior by showing up with cameras.”

The people who run network television don’t want to be “causing” street politics in New York City. They are willing to take stealth action to avoid it.

“The fear is that the presence of that causes it,” said David Bohrman, the executive producer of CNN’s convention coverage. “That’s really a fear. We’re reluctant to pull our cameras out if there’s a crowd of people. You don’t want to galvanize a crowd by pointing a camera at them. You want to report on them, but you don’t want to be the cause of them.”

Mr. Bohrman said that was one of the reasons that most national news organizations didn’t mark their equipment with logos.

“I think you’ll find the networks and the cable networks, their cars won’t be marked so they don’t attract attention…”

Fortifications in front of Fox. Unmarked cars for network news crews. And a strange kind of dialogue going on between protestors in their rumored descent on the city and TV execs trying to war game it: Could we possibly have “democracy is in the streets” again, where TV, confronted with news on two fronts, cross cuts from one to the other— from the convention, to the streets?

Does that even happen at conventions any more? Do the rules permit it? Didn’t we outgrow that? Hagen reports on the confusion sown by not wanting to be a cause:

It wasn’t clear what would constitute a news event big enough to cut into a prime-time Republican speech—especially President Bush’s. And nobody was willing to hazard a guess, for fear of inadvertently making a recommendation to the protesters.

Fear of vehicle attacks. Fear of causing street action. Fear of protestors who somehow figure you out better than you have figured on them. Fear of ‘68. Fear of having to make a decision. They’re all related.

“We need to think a little bit before we do that,” says David Bohrman, in charge of CNN’s convention coverage. “None of us knows what this is going to turn into. By everyone’s hope, it won’t be Chicago 1968.”

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

Chris Thompson in The East Bay Express:

According to assignment editor Sarah Courtney of the Fox News politics desk, her network plans to have at least three teams of producers, reporters, and cameramen bird-dogging the protests throughout the week. “We haven’t solidified all the teams yet,” she says, “but we have every intention of making the protests a big part of the convention coverage.” An assistant to National Review editor Rich Lowry said the magazine will almost assuredly dedicate considerable space to the demo’s crazier antics. Steve Gray, who works at the city desk for the New York Post, promises to do the same: “If something that’s offbeat comes up, it’ll definitely be covered.” A spokesperson for the right-wing Washington Times claims that the paper sent up a reporter to cover the demonstrations two weeks ago. “If the protests get out of control, we’ll beef it up,” he added.

In this online chat, the Washington Post’s Robert Kaiser (associate editor) says he expects the protests to be the big story on Monday and Tuesday of convention week.

The AP reports on TV networks and their plans for handling protests: “”Our goal is to keep things in the proper perspective and not fall victim to staying with something just because it’s a good picture and happening now,” Princell Hair, executive vice president of CNN said. (via TV Newser.)

Greg Mitchell, Editor & Publisher, Challenging a Media Myth: ‘68 Riots Didn’t Doom Humphrey.

Posted by Jay Rosen at August 27, 2004 12:59 AM