Why the Networks Should Still Be Covering the Conventions

News at Home

Mr. Shenkman, the author of PRESIDENTIAL AMBITION: GAINING POWER AT ANY COST (HarperCollins), is the editor of HNN. His blog is: POTUS.

This is the story about the significance of a man straightening his tie. A few years ago when I was researching the history of television I discovered that briefly one of the talked about events of the exciting 1948 Democratic convention was when the television cameras caught Harry Truman straightening his tie as he approached the dais to deliver his acceptance speech. The significance of the event was that millions watched it. There's a lesson in this for us and the networks today.

The networks say that they are not broadcasting gavel to gavel coverage of the conventions because the conventions are expected to generate little news. But what is news anyway? The assumption of network executives is that the conventions are not news because we already know who will be nominated. But this is far too cramped a view for the networks to take.

Any event watched by millions becomes news by virtue of the fact that millions watched. That was why newspapers like the New York Times took note of Truman's fixing his cravat. With television the insignificant can appear significant simply because it has happened in front of millions of people.

The equivalent of a president straightening his tie today could take any of a number of forms. It could be, for example, the way in which the conventions are scripted, which the networks use as evidence that the conventions are boring and therefore unnewsworthy. But there's news in the way a convention is scripted. The decision of the parties to put politician X on at 4pm and politician Y on at 8pm is news. The networks might respond that the decisions are announced in advance and therefore aren't news. But to take this view is to adopt an elitist's outlook. Most Americans do not follow the news carefully like news junkies. It is altogether more likely that they would discover that the parties had put X up at 4pm and Y at 8pm when X and Y actually appeared. If the networks insist on being news sticklers, the parties could accommodate them by refusing to say in advance when X or Y would appear, thus providing an element of surprise, which the networks could tout as news. In any case, the fact that millions are watching would itself be newsworthy.

The obvious objection to this is that the networks would then be creating a news event simply by covering it. But networks do this all the time. Any time the cameras show up at a protest rally of ten people and the videotape of the event is later shown on television the networks have in effect made news by covering it. The question should not be, are the networks creating a news event, but whether their coverage is serving a journalistic purpose. The answer in the case of the conventions would be yes.

With the candidates at the conventions outlining their party's platform, for instance, millions of people would be learning what the platforms say. That the platforms had previously been published is irrelevant. Who in the audience likely would already have read the platforms? Not many, you can bet. So they would be learning something new. That's news, right?

One of the conceits of the present is that we have more sources of news than ever before. This is true. But it is not presently of great significance. Most people still do not avail themselves of these alternative sources. Most people rely on television as their main source of news.

A consequence of the reliance on television is that people are generally less well-informed about events today than their grandparents were. As Thomas Patterson has repeatedly emphasized in his well-researched studies of voters, Americans knew more about the news when newspapers were their main source of information. When they switched in large numbers to TV in the 1960s they knew less.

Now because the networks fail to cover the conventions they will know even less than they did, presumably, just a few short years ago when the networks gave the conventions extended coverage. In a democracy this can only mean one thing. The voters will be less informed than they should be.

Television to be sure is not wholly to blame for the decline in public knowledge about the news. Several factors account for the decline: the weakening of political parties, which formerly served as educators of public opinion; the demise of unions, which helped educate their members about issues; the distrust of major institutions, which inspires apathy; and the infatuation with celebrities. But television's role is perhaps the most important.

To hear television executives say that the conventions are boring and they won't cover them is therefore distressing. The irony is that television executives in the 1950s at the birth of the industry thought that politics was so exciting that people would want to buy sets to watch the conventions. Buy a Stromberg-Carlson, proclaimed one newspaper advertisement and you "can see and hear more of the Presidential Conventions than the delegates themselves…. You're in the scenes and behind the scenes-with history in the making!"

That the conventions are now scripted and seemingly dull is a result of another irony. After the raucous Democratic convention of 1968 officials in both parties realized conventions needed to be scripted. The Republicans caught on faster. In 1972 Richard Nixon sailed to renomination at a convention in which every minute was scripted, as Dan Rather discovered when he came across a document the party wanted kept secret. The Democrats, by contrast, let George McGovern deliver his acceptance address in the wee hours of the morning. But that was the last time events at a convention were left to chance.

The conventions today are boring. But boring doesn't mean insignificant. If millions are watching and learning about what the parties stand for and who is in charge they deserve to be covered by the networks.

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Arnold Shcherban - 8/2/2004

I'm sorry Jonathan for "spicing" it up.

But on another token, you apparently didn't quite
understand what I was targeting making the point I made.
I'm actually the one who stayed right on the issue raised by the article's author: the media coverage of the conventions. What I said in this regard was essentially the following: any educated person more or less familiar with the current developments in the US political life can stay away from the conventions' coverage without much chance of missing any entertainnment, useful or new information, or acquiring further understanding of current political process.
I would insult my intelligence saying that those ignorant, in general, or politically should follow ther same suit or should not make themselves more familiar
with, at the least, national politics.

Jonathan Dresner - 8/1/2004

Actually, I see a great deal wrong with the situation, including the corporate and money problems, primary election structures, two-party dominance (and the factional infighting within the parties), poor primary and secondary citizenship education, and a whole lot more. I've written publicly about much of it, on HNN and on Cliopatria, in letters to the editor, etc.

But there must be an element of reality in our discussions: the two parties are the dominant forces in our politics, and it is in our self-interest as citizens to pay attention to what they say and do.

Arnold Shcherban - 8/1/2004

Yes, they will dominate American political process,
since it has been corrupted by corporate money and
corporate-client media from top to bottom, and still the "democrats" like you are don't see anything wrong
about the situation.

Jonathan Dresner - 8/1/2004

The question is, what percentage of the country has, in fact, been reading newspapers and watching political news of sufficient quality to have any idea what these candidates stand for? So much of the political reportage in this country is about process, instead of substance, soundbites and fundraising instead of programs and principles, that the convention speeches, even the measly three hours provided this year by the main networks, remain a powerful chance for the parties to speak in the equivalent of complete sentences, instead of the fragmented thirty-second commercial (which most people don't watch anyway).

No, there weren't any issues being decided, but these parties still dominate our political process, and as such are very important institutions in American life: their conventions, even just the vetted speeches, are worth watching and reporting on in detail.

And yes, I will be watching at least as much of the Republican convention as I did the Democratic one, probably more. C-Span is our friend....

Arnold Shcherban - 7/31/2004

The Republican and Democratic Party conventions are definitely as boring as they get.
One don't have to be a political analyst (not mentioning
rocket scientist!) or even routinely read newspapers and watch political news to be sure of the about 95% of what
will be said, promised, declared, etc. and by whom at those conventions.
If one wants to hear something relatively interesting important or new, they have no choice, but totally avoid the TV broadcast of those gatherings.

Ken Melvin - 7/30/2004

When history is writ will the campaign record be an image of the candidate on the screen with Dan Rather or counterpart talking. Will C-Span's records be kept? Even PBS's. I found out today that the only full recording of John Kerry's April 1971 Senate testimony was made by, not CBS, not ABC, not NBC, Free Speech Radio. Who should be the arbiter of history?

Ken Melvin - 7/30/2004

Why should networks be allowed to decide? Sure they would prefer to have the parties pay for ads, but the public is entitled to demand that they provide convention coverage as a condition of their license.

Jonathan Dresner - 7/30/2004

You're right, mostly, and I wasn't seriously advocating moving in that direction. However, there is something to be said for reaching an audience: They didn't plan the convention to be boring, and in reality it wasn't, though it certainly wasn't suspenseful, either. All I'm saying is that the networks, with a little effort, could present the same material in a variety of ways, thus, perhaps, reviving some interest in politics.

And I'm not entirely sure that politics is as boring as all that: the reality show genre is full of game theory and strategic decision points, system manipulation, coalition and alliances, politics writ small. I'm also not sure that politics is as interesting as all that: the differences between the two major parties are very real in some areas (which is where the partisans focus), and meaningless in others (which is why all the 'we're one America' stuff works).

I know from teaching and from my own work that the vast majority of the work gets done at the last minute. So it is with politics: people don't start paying attention until late. If we worked out a reasonable financial system, and a shorter and more interesting primary system, we could have these nice short general election seasons and people would pay attention.

Rick Shenkman - 7/30/2004

The problem is that research inidcates that Americans have little interest in politics. So producers shy away from the subject.

My argument is that the criteria used to measure the success of a news program like the Democratic Convention should be different from that used to measure a show like Survivor.

Soon as you say the convention has to meet the same criteria as other shows, you are surrendering to the belief that TV has to be about entertainement at all times. Down that path is where we are already headed. It's a culdesac for democracy.

Jonathan Dresner - 7/29/2004

It doesn't seem to me that the conventions are, indeed, less interesting that the barely improvisational, highly edited, 'reality' shows that are already cluttering up the wavelengths. With, as Shenkman points out, sufficiently informed and reasonably dramatic commentary (CBS and Comedy Central, perhaps, could team up; or perhaps just reassign some producers from the reality division to news), and some freedom to roam and interview, the conventions could indeed be really interesting TV.

What about a show that tracked a few select delegates through the convention, speeches, parties, hotel room fiascos, security checkpoints, romantic interludes, encounters with politico-celebrities, etc.? What about picking one or two speeches a night and doing a detailed analysis of what worked, what didn't, and for whom, including pre and post interviews with the speechmaker?

If I can come up with this stuff, why can't they?

Derek Charles Catsam - 7/28/2004

Yes, I notice how the networks are suddenly picky about what qualifies as news. And i am sure the viewing public is especially gratified that even as the networks disdain what is going on in Boston and will go on in NYC, they are airing such serious fare as reality television shows. there was once a time when the networks got the virtually free access to the limited airwaves in exchange for provding periodic public services. Too bad the tv industry got enough of a hold on Congress and effectively threw that out the window.