An Unconventional Approach: Since Political Conventions Have Become Television Extravaganzas Rather Than News Events, Let's Assign Some Critics to Cover Them

By Smolkin, Rachel | American Journalism Review, October-November 2004 | Go to article overview

An Unconventional Approach: Since Political Conventions Have Become Television Extravaganzas Rather Than News Events, Let's Assign Some Critics to Cover Them


Smolkin, Rachel, American Journalism Review


Clone Tom Shales.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

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, a 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. …

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