Political Conventions Staged but Still Worth Media Coverage

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Byline: John Zimmerman Daily Herald Editorial Writer

There were truly mass media at the United Center. About 15,000 reporters, editors, commentators and photographers covered the Democratic National Convention - more than enough to populate Itasca and Inverness combined, enough to fill the upper deck at Comiskey Park.

That's a big crowd for an event that has so little news value; that is, if Ted Koppel is right.

Koppel took his live "Nightline" show out of San Diego on the grounds that the Republican National Convention was a staged event that didn't merit serious coverage.

Is Koppel right? Are conventions worth all the time, effort and money the media put into them?

"Next time, why don't we just rent hotel rooms in New York and watch it on television?" said Andrew Rosenthal, Washington editor of the New York Times.

Rosenthal's comment, though, is tongue in cheek. Although he notes that the Times will be evaluating its convention coverage strategy, he is satisfied his readers are getting more from his newspaper than they can expect from television. The speeches, the candidates profiles, the platforms, the color, the insights; these are things the print media can deliver and continue to do so. They will not be compelled to do a Koppel.

But were the news media lulled into going along with the staged show, grousing about lack of substance, but failing to go out and seek stories that defy the predictability of the conventions?

In 1988, reporters complained of the boredom at the Republican National Convention in New Orleans. Fresh off a night of fun in the French Quarter, they assembled for the press conference where George Bush was to formally introduce his choice for vice president, Dan Quayle. The questions were tame, at least until one reporter dared to ask Quayle how he could support a strong national defense after having evaded service in Vietnam.

From there, the convention turned from a sleepy affair to one in which the public was awakened to potential flaws in the character of a man a heartbeat away from the presidency, all because of one good question.

Media analyst David Caputo would like to see more tough questions in convention coverage. Caputo, president of Hunter College in New York, cited CNN interviews of Mario Cuomo and Birch Bayh of Indiana, father of the Indiana governor.

"They were all soft interviews," Caputo said. He added that the presidential candidates ought to be pushed to explain their positions and be held accountable for them.

"It would be helpful to have a specific enumeration of what the candidate said, against what is in the platform," he said.

Caputo also said that when television networks began limiting their coverage of the conventions, it made it easier for the parties to stage the conventions. The political parties have discovered a way to limit negative news.

"The parties have figured out how to beat the media at their own game," he said. …