First Person:<br>An Unconventional Approach  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   October/November 2004

First Person:
An Unconventional Approach   

Since political conventions have become television extravaganzas rather than news events, lets assign some critics to cover them.

By Rachel Smolkin
     


Clone Tom Shales.

The wisecracking Washington Post TV critic and curmudgeon brings a fresh eye to convention coverage that too often is listless and predictable. Cloning him, or at least expanding the use of TV critics and their valuable perspective, could provide a powerful antidote four years from now to convention coverage begging for an overhaul.

Incessantly, in print and on television, journalists' dried voices rasped together this summer like T.S. Eliot's hollow men, decrying the futility of political conventions. The broadcast networks, to their eternal discredit, nearly abandoned coverage of a forum for communicating with voters that only occurs every four years. Nothing ever happens anymore, journalists and pundits mourned. It is all scripted, predictable, dull.

They are right, of course. Breaking news is painfully scarce. The days of gripping melees on the convention floor and secret machinations in smoke-filled rooms have given way to melodramatic televised testimonials. Unlike in 1960, the nomination of the current JFK was a foregone conclusion months before Democrats convened. Despite deep party divisions over the war in Iraq, fissures never disrupted the Democrats' convention, ` la 1968.

But having correctly diagnosed the changes in conventions, many journalists proceed to two flawed corollaries: 1) Convention coverage is less important than it used to be; and 2) Journalists should continue to cover conventions as breaking news, just as they always have, even though there is no breaking news.

With a few exceptions, such as the Post's Shales, journalists have missed an opportunity to adapt their convention coverage to changing times. Bombarded by Swift boat ads, wardrobe malfunctions and graphic whackings on "The Sopranos," voters are far more sophisticated about TV than when the original JFK basked as the medium's first political star. And for voters who live outside coveted swing states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, TV is probably the only place they'll be able to observe the candidates -- making intelligent analysis of a presidential hopeful's performance in this medium more, not less, important.

Conventions, in their current incarnation as made-for-TV events, should be treated as such and analyzed within that framework. Journalists understand the scripted nature of conventions well enough to carp about it, but they continue to treat conventions' stagecraft as an asterisk to coverage rather than its core.

Perhaps the best insight into this failing comes from National Journal media critic William Powers, who argued in a February 7 column that something was "deeply wrong with the campaign coverage." He suggested that the media stumble in getting at "that very public space where candidates go to connect with the mass of voters" -- the media itself. Elaborating in a March telephone interview, Powers said, "We haven't figured out how to cover the interaction candidates are having through the media with the broad public."

Political conventions provide a singular opportunity to correct this failing, not by replacing traditional political coverage but by enhancing it. Conventions rely on mass communication, but the media too often overlook a group of journalists who specialize in critiquing just that.

Why not invite a panel of television, theater and movie critics to dissect a speech? Why not give this same group a forum to offer their views somewhere in the next day's paper?

How did the speeches play, individually and collectively? Did they use television effectively, or were they aimed only at supporters in the room? (Think Howard Dean's ill-fated "I have a scream" speech.) Were rabid accusations by Democratic turncoat Zell Miller exhilarating or alarming? Did the Bush twins' jarring jokes--including the unforgettable line that their "Ganny" is so unhip she thinks " 'Sex and the City' is something married people do but never talk about"--delight or repulse their target audience of twentysomethings?

Instead, the media continue to cover conventions as they would a "real" news event, dutifully reporting the words of the president and his challenger, then turning, with a seriousness bordering on absurdity, to solicit reaction from the candidate's allies and foes. Could anything be less illuminating than the incessant blather provided by partisans on cable television?

Victoria Clarke, the former Pentagon spokeswoman for the Bush administration, told CNN that Miller's support of Bush is "just another sign of the remarkable depth and breadth of opinion and political persuasion you're seeing coming out here and supporting the president this week." Astonishing insight! Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe appeared on CNN to call Bush's speech "just another litany of empty promises." I was shocked to discover he feels that way.

TV commentators should give the obligatory response time to the opposing party, then move on to something more interesting.

In the March interview, Powers said: "There's something Tom Shales does when he reviews a presidential speech that is incredibly valuable to me. He doesn't write about literal policy proposals -- more a sense of how it came across in the gut."

Consider the perspective that Shales brings. On July 30, he called John F. Kerry's speech "a note of stirring, if hurried, triumph" but questioned the convention's optimistic tone as "a strangely passive approach" for persuading voters to swap commanders in chief amid a brutal war in Iraq and a battle against terrorism. On September 3, during the crisper and more pugilistic Republican convention, he gave Bush's speech a mixed review, saying the president exuded "confidence and bravado most of the time" but appeared "flustered, even frightened" when protesters interrupted his remarks.

Shales also acknowledged the "truism" that conventions are mere infomercials but added the "question is which party produces the best infomerical and makes the best use of television."

This is where the media founder and where a steadier diet of smart television criticism could augment coverage. Such commentary inevitably will expose the media to further accusations of bias, but a poisoned political environment is no excuse for bland journalism. And nostalgia for conventions past is no excuse for slighting readers and viewers in the present.

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