Who Is the Irrelevant One Here? (7/30/04)
There seems to have been an unknown media law passed in the last decade or so that requires everyone writing or reporting about the political conventions to bemoan in every story or report the lack of 'real news,' followed by a negative characterization of the conventions as 'infomercials.' Okay. We get it.
What led to the change in political conventions was a change in the delegate selection process, a shift from state conventions and other insider-dominated techniques to straight-up primaries. Nothing is perfect, but most people agree that the current system is more democratic, hence better, even if it has diminished the news value of the national party conventions.
So, to their credit, the conventions have evolved and the way they have changed very much mirrors changes that have occurred in conventions of various other industries over the same period. In the past, say 20-30 years ago, annual trade conventions were a place to do business, buy and sell, make deals, and book most or all of your business for the coming year. Today, for a variety of reasons having primarily to do with technology, very little actual business is conducted at most trade conventions. Instead they are a place to network with colleagues, learn about new developments in the industry, and see new products if not actually to buy them. Some of the associations that sponsor conventions have adapted well to these changes and some have not. Old timers invariably wax nostalgic about the 'old days' but life goes on. In most industries, trade conventions still have a purpose and so do the political conventions, even though it has changed. I enjoy political theater and still like watching the political conventions, despite their changed nature. It is the biggest stage most of the participants will ever be on so they are all at the top of their game. It is the best political oratory you will ever hear, if you go in for that sort of thing.
What the media seems not to have grasped, for all their whining, is not just how the conventions have changed but how the coverage of them needs to change. This is not so much an issue for print journalists as for television organizations who in the past have covered the conventions as breaking news events. Rarely are breaking news events scheduled in advance and held in a hall with a stage, making them so easy for lazy journalists to cover. It is not surprising, therefore, that the TV news organizations have been so sorry to see them go, but gone they are nevertheless. Now that the conventions are no longer what they were, the TV crowd seems terribly unsure about journalism's role. The endless repetitive babbling about 'no news' and 'infomercials' reflects just how clueless they are about what to do next.
During the Democratic convention this week, I found that the best way to watch it was on C-SPAN, which simply played the party's video and audio feeds without interruption or comment. I now intend to watch the Republican convention the same way. Whenever I checked in with the various broadcast or cable news outfits they just got in the way, providing irrelevant commentary to something that was right there for everyone to see. Even as they bemoaned the lack of news to report, they persisted in trying to report it. I am not sure how they should cover the conventions now. It is appropriate for C-SPAN to take the party's feed, but that wouldn't be right for CNN. Unfortunately, the way they are doing it seems to emphasize their irrelevance more so than the supposed irrelevance of the conventions.
Many also have lamented the decision of the major broadcast networks to provide minimal live convention coverage. The entertainment programming they have chosen to show instead, more game shows where morons eat insects, make them an easy target. But the fact is that the conventions are not news so covering them as news can't possibly be compelling. If commentary and analysis is appropriate it is best served up afterward, so I can watch the event, reach my own tentative conclusions, then have my analysis augmented by that of experts. Everyone who has cable or satellite has C-SPAN. Maybe the nation's PBS stations should also carry the straight party feeds so the few homes only served by broadcast can also have access to the full 'text' of the conventions. Then let the news organizations report news and provide commentary, without feeling obliged to show the important speeches in their entirety or provide any real time coverage.
Obviously, all of these independent organizations need to make their own decisions about what they think their viewers want to see. As a viewer, I want to decide when to watch what the political party wants me to see and when to watch third party commentary about it. When I'm watching the convention on C-SPAN, I know I'm watching a politically calculated 'show.' I don't need CNN, CBS or FOX to keep reminding me of that fact and deciding for me when I can watch it and when I have to watch their show instead. I'd rather do that myself, thank you. So instead of sitting in their booths, using the convention as a backdrop, and providing half-baked, irrelevant and whiney instant commentary, maybe the news organizations need to get off their butts and find some actual news to report. I can watch the speeches on C-SPAN, but maybe CNN can tell me if the protestors outside the hall have had anything interesting to say, maybe FOX can tell me if the Democrats' presentation has prompted the Republicans to modify their convention strategy, maybe CBS can tell me how the speeches are being received in London, Moscow or Baghdad. That might be worth watching. The way they are covering the conventions now is not.
© 2004, Charles Kendrick Cowdery, All Rights Reserved.