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Escaping the Convention Matrix 

Networks, sponsorship, faux unity and a way out of the dark

Thursday, Aug 5 2004
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On the third night of the convention, a small fracas erupted near the Washington delegation, just below John Edwards’ podium. One of the whips — these were the radio-equipped DNC staffers in yellow net vests who fanned out each evening to supervise the floor directly — had handed out the HOPE IS ON THE WAY signs too early. Now the local whip squad desperately sought to put down an inadvertent rebellion against the EDWARDS pole banners that were the intended visibility targets at that moment in the speech.

“Hope down!” screamed one whip, looking like a startled hornet as he shuttled around in close quarters and gestured wildly. Some of the delegates were perplexed; a few seemed annoyed; most didn’t notice and waved their signs at will. “No! No! Edwards up! Hope down! Okay, now Edwards and hope — Edwards and hope together!”

Such was the fanatical attention to choreography that it was easy for the whips to forget that these eager delegates had traveled 3,000 miles not so much to join the show but to swoon en masse at the libretto. And for each delegate, there were three journalists combing that libretto for symbolism and oracular insight into the presidential horserace, making it equally easy to forget that outside the Fleet Center there were larger questions to be asked about the big week in Boston.

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Like: What was the point? In an overheated wartime election, the electorate got another of the carefully managed advertisements we’ve come to expect from the national party conventions. And despite voters having much more interest in this election than in 2000, they watched only marginally more of the show. Complaining about lack of news, the networks cut their coverage to three hours. Complaining about the lack of coverage, the Democrats, who had actually made some news in the primaries, hid the few real issues on the table behind the banner of party unity. Each side blamed the other in an ongoing debate that may be just two ends of the same argument. As the convention unfolded, the only issue looming larger than whether voters cared was whether there was all that much to care about.

“I’d say the answer is yes,” said professor Thomas Patterson, a political scientist at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard. I met Patterson in his office three days before the convention began. His phone had been ringing all morning because he had commissioned a poll gauging interest in the convention, and the results were just in. One of the more startling figures was the 66 percent of those surveyed who didn’t know the DNC was about to start.

Patterson explained how a lot of people will wind up seeing some of the coverage anyway, and maintained that the conventions are a vital ritual for informing the public. “Voters,” he said, “do most of their learning about the candidates in three small bursts — at the debates, in the contested primaries and during the conventions.”

If that’s the case, I asked, shouldn’t the press more rigorously vet them? Otherwise, as some news executives suggested this time around, the parties are simply getting free commercials in prime time.

Patterson’s response was that the performances of the convention were more truthful and direct than anything the media could say about them. Patterson wrote a book that touched on this topic, called Out of Order, in which he cataloged how the imperatives of the news cycle and the narrow frameworks used by the media for campaign stories distort election coverage. “The conventions provide the best sense of what a future administration will be like,” he said.

Understood properly, this thesis is a real mind-bender for journalists, who see themselves as an essential filtering system: As the campaigns spin, the press does its best to unspin, decode and read between the lines to get close to some kind of objective reality. Maybe that’s a flawed view of both the profession and human reality — journalism is not optics, after all, where one refractive lens can be corrected with another — but it’s easier to accept than the proposition that, during the convention, the media offers little besides printing speech transcripts and letting cameras roll unattended.

And that’s what Patterson is suggesting. “This is when the Democrats present themselves as they want to be seen,” he said. “Thursday night is the one chance that Kerry gets to speak directly to the American people for an hour and not have his statements mediated or interpreted. Journalists may be bored, but much of what people see of this is brand-new to them.”

Patterson said that the ratio of a candidate’s own words to those of the anchor or correspondent in a typical newscast has fallen from 1 to 1 in the early ’70s to 1 to 6 today. And he pointed out that in his survey, which asked what people most wanted to see during the convention, the very last item on the list was “journalists’ analysis.”

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