The Boston Phoenix
August 3 - 10, 2000

[Don't Quote Me]

No news is bad news

The media whine about the no-news convention and miss the real story: The public's profound alienation from politics

Don't Quote Me by Dan Kennedy

PHILADELPHIA -- The media -- all 15,000-plus reporters, photographers, editors, producers, and assorted hangers-on who've descended on this unlovely, brutally humid old city -- are having a nervous breakdown. And you're invited to watch.

With the Republican National Convention making no news, and with the Democratic convention destined to be similarly vacuous, it seems the only story media people are talking about is the fact that there's no story. The number of no-story stories has been multiplying at such an alarming rate that, as the National Journal's William Powers observed the other day, even that is no longer a story. But it persists, because the ever-solipsistic media are never happier (in a miserable, self-pitying kind of way) than when they can talk about themselves.

It's a bizarre phenomenon, observes the Weekly Standard's David Brooks. "My view is if you don't like hanging around people in politics, then you're in the wrong business," he says. Yet it is manifestly evident in the work coming out of Philadelphia this week.

Consider, for example, the contemptuous tone adopted by the New York Times' R.W. Apple Jr.

in a front-page news analysis on Tuesday. Writing that the desire not to offend "has drained all the drama and much of the meaning from modern political conventions," Apple goes on to sneer: "No surprises are wanted these days. No sore losers. No floor fights. So long, eccentricity. Farewell, spontaneity; hello, choreography. No more smoke-filled rooms -- unless you count the convention hall, which is to be filled with artificial, politically correct smoke as part of the entertainment here." Well.

This is all true, of course, just as it was four years ago, when Ted Koppel stormed out of San Diego rather than subject his Nightline viewers to the stupefaction of what proved to be Bob Dole's final mission. As a result, the broadcast networks have cut way back on their coverage this year, which has led to much handwringing among public-spirited types such as Marvin Kalb and Tom Patterson, co-directors of Harvard's Vanishing Voter Project. They believe the solution lies, in part, in getting the networks to go back to the glory days of gavel-to-gavel coverage. The idea is that viewers would be forced either to watch and learn something or to turn off the tube, consumer choice be damned. Never mind that PBS (available, after all, even to people without cable), CNN, MSNBC, the Fox News Channel, C-SPAN, and a flurry of political Web sites are providing all the coverage any political junkie could possibly want. And never mind that said coverage only confirms the average viewer's good taste in choosing to watch Monday Night Football rather than Laura Bush's speech in front of a fake classroom, a performance so wretchedly unctuous that it rivaled Al Gore's quadrennial wallowing in personal tragedy.

"This is the one time people can focus and see the candidates and see the speakers," argues Cambridge-based Republican political consultant Charley Manning, who agrees with the call for all convention, all the time. To bolster his case, he provides a childhood memory: John F. Kennedy's late-night convention victory for the Democratic nomination in 1960. But Manning's example cuts both ways. Sure it was exciting. But the plain truth is that conventions don't choose candidates anymore, and haven't since the 1970s. Candidates are no longer tapped in sleazy deals cut by backroom operatives; rather, they are elected directly by the voters. That is unquestionably good for democracy, even though the primary system has its own drawbacks -- such as an increasingly compressed schedule that favors candidates who can raise ungodly amounts of money months before the first ballot has been cast.

Get outside the First Union Center, the concrete bunker on the outskirts of Philadelphia where this week's festivities are taking place amid the charming atmosphere of an armed camp, and there is real news. There was a corporate-funded cocktail party for several hundred gay and lesbian Republicans -- an event that would have been unthinkable eight years ago, when Pat Buchanan delivered his party-wrecking "culture war" speech (the one that Molly Ivins quipped was better in the original German). There is the Shadow Convention, at the University of Pennsylvania, organized by political doyenne Arianna Huffington to focus on vital issues such as campaign-finance reform, the growing gap between rich and poor, and the failed war on drugs. And, of course, there are the protests, street actions modeled after recent events in Seattle and Washington, DC -- occasionally violent demonstrations to denounce the World Trade Organization, to call for a new trial for convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal, to speak out for animal rights and the environment, and to oppose the death penalty.

All these events have received coverage in Philadelphia, if not in much depth. As far as the mainstream media are concerned, the Shadow Convention (which will be repeated when the Democrats convene in Los Angeles) has been interesting mainly because John McCain appeared there to release his delegates and to reiterate his support for George W. Bush, and because the Reverend Jesse Jackson showed up to offer his own negative endorsement of Al Gore (that is, Gore isn't Bush).

Coverage of the protests has been even more one-dimensional, with media outlets -- especially the local TV newscasts -- playing them up as a battle of heroic cops against skanky radicals with mysterious, though no doubt dubious, agendas. In fact, the protesters seem not to realize that it's hard to send much of a message when you're lying down on an entrance ramp or jumping up on a police cruiser. Still, in an ideal media universe journalists would take the opportunity afforded by these events to explain issues they don't normally have a chance to delve into.




New York Times columnist Frank Rich has a theory as to why the media are agonizing about the conventions -- about whether they should be doing more, about whether they should be doing less, about whether the conventions even matter. "Not to be too Freudian about it, but what you're seeing is a sort of displacement," he told me. "There are 15,000 reporters here and no story. What are they going to talk about? Themselves and their own anxiety."

Rich's point is that the lack of news in Philadelphia has become a kind of proxy for thinking about the changes that threaten the traditional media. On television, coverage has shifted from the mass-audience broadcast networks to the niche-audience cable networks. In print, reporters who once had the luxury of time must now file continually for their publications' Web sites. (Indeed, the Phoenix has been publishing daily convention reports on BostonPhoenix.com.) And everyone is being pressed by pure Internet ventures, from rather traditional operations such as Salon and Slate to flaky projects such as Pseudo.com (which lets viewers pick their own angle from which to watch the convention) to the Republicans' self-coverage for the party faithful, at GOPConvention.com.

The biggest story of the convention is money -- but no one is covering it except in the most general of terms, because a press pass can't get you in to the private events where politicians and Corporate America continue to consummate their ongoing affair.

But there are hints here and there. Inside the First Union Center is a special reception area for "Eagles," well-heeled backers who've given the Republican Party at least $15,000 in soft money -- something that has been in no short supply. The Republicans have now pulled in nearly $140 million in soft money, which is unregulated and will be used for attack ads against the Democrats. (The Democrats, of course, are planning a similar corporate-funded negative campaign, though with somewhat less money at hand.)

"One group of special interests is funding these campaigns," says Common Cause executive director (and former Massachusetts attorney general) Scott Harshbarger, an organizer of the Shadow Conventions. "The excesses of the system are on display. And the media is reporting this as if it were inevitable -- that that's the way it is."

With private interests being served out of the media's view, what's on display in public is trite and treacly, cynical and condescending in ways that betray a disturbing contempt for the voters -- who are, after all, the folks the Republicans are trying to reach this week. On Monday, I decided to watch the proceedings from inside the convention hall, theorizing that it might be interesting to analyze it as a television event from the point of view of the extras -- um, I mean the delegates -- rather than watch it on television. The New Yorker's Joe Klein, who was sitting nearby, thought my plan sounded rather desperate, and in truth I wondered whether I would have been better off back in my hotel room, switching between CNN, MSNBC, and Fox. But it turned out to be revealing.

For one thing, you don't get to see all the worst parts on TV, because they cut away to do interviews when the action at the podium becomes too ludicrous. And the parade of African-American, Latino, and Asian advocates of education, adoption, and religion indeed bordered on the ludicrous. Indeed, the number of minorities on stage Monday night may wind up rivaling the number who vote for the Bush-Cheney ticket this fall.

For another, when you watch the proceedings on TV, you miss the awkward mechanics of the medium. The commercial breaks, where everyone sat around waiting for something to happen. The dumb-ass music used to introduce speakers. (Sam Cooke's "Wonderful World," which greeted the education speakers, begins, "Don't know much about history." Hello?) The stagehands, moving around drum sets and other props every few minutes as though they were working at some cheesy awards show rather than a political convention -- not that there seemed to be any difference. As NBC anchor Tom Brokaw told me after an event sponsored by the Kennedy School's Joan Shorenstein Center on Politics, Public Policy, and the Press: "The whole convention is about entertainment. It's not about honest dialogue."

The only dignified moment of the entire evening was Colin Powell's first-rate speech. By then, though, the delegates were so enervated that when he challenged Republican dogma by criticizing the party's penchant for building prisons and its opposition to affirmative action, they did the only thing they seemed to remember how to do: they clapped, robotically, as if on cue.




It's Sunday, a little before 11 a.m., and thousands upon thousands of protesters are marching through the intersection of John F. Kennedy Boulevard and 16th Street. A phalanx of cops keeps the radicals a safe distance from City Hall.

This is the Unity 2000 march, an event that -- according to later news reports -- drew some 10,000 participants. Handpainted sheets exhort, RESIST CANDIDATES MANIPULATED BY CORPORATIONS. Slick posters that read NOT ONE MORE LYNCHING feature photographs of Mumia Abu-Jamal, who's on death row, and Gary Graham, whose execution Governor Bush did nothing to stop despite serious questions about the competence of his defense lawyer.

The protest includes radicals ranging from the International Workers of the World (a/k/a the Wobblies) to the Socialist Workers Party, as well as less militant groups, such as Greens and animal-rights activists. Dreadlocked, pierced, and tattooed young people chanted, "Hey, hey, ho, ho, Bush and Cheney got to go." The most entertaining exhibit: a float sponsored by "Billionaires for Bush (or Gore)," with a guy wearing a Bush mask wielding a fake missile as if it were the world's most imposing penis.

Whatever else you might think of the Seattle-style protests that have come to Philadelphia, and that will greet the Democrats in Los Angeles later this month, they are a sign of profound disengagement from the established political system. And it's no wonder people are disengaged. Yes, there are important differences between George W. Bush and Al Gore on issues such as abortion rights, full equality for lesbians and gay men, and health care. Yet there is considerable truth to the critique that they are more alike than different, especially in their fealty to corporate interests. Bush and Gore had so thoroughly wired their parties' nominating processes that only two candidates, John McCain and Bill Bradley, dared oppose them, and not even the popular McCain got very far. Now the only alternatives -- the Green Party's Ralph Nader, the Libertarian Party's Harry Browne, and the Reform Party's Pat Buchanan (assuming he survives an intraparty battle) -- appear unlikely to be invited to the televised debates, thus freezing out all but the most mainstream of opinions.

At the First Union Center, I ran into CNN analyst Bill Schneider and asked him where he came down on whether the highly staged, contrived conventions of 2000 deserve extensive coverage. "You cover the making of the infomercial as a news event," he replied. "And it is an infomercial. No one has an obligation to put the Republican National Committee's infomercial on the air wall to wall. They just don't."

The sort of tough, skeptical coverage that Schneider advocates would serve the public well -- not just during the two convention weeks, but throughout the fall. Unfortunately, that's not what we're going to get. Sure, the media will cover the horse race -- who's up, who's down, who's gaining, who's losing -- as well as the accusations and responses, the biographical retrospectives, and the gotchas. That's all valuable stuff.

But they'll almost certainly miss the biggest political story of all: the profound disconnect between average citizens and their elected officials, a disconnect that a few politicians -- Ross Perot, John McCain, maybe Ralph Nader -- occasionally tap into, but that continues to go unaddressed by the system as a whole. A sign at the Shadow Convention put it best: WE CAN ONLY VOTE EVERY FOUR YEARS; MONEY VOTES EVERY DAY.

It's a story the media could have tried to cover during convention week, but -- with rare exceptions -- they didn't even try. Instead, the story coming out of Philadelphia was that there was no story. There was. If journalists would start focusing more on the public's alienation and less on their own, maybe they could start to tell it.


Dan Kennedy's work can be accessed from his Web site: http://www.shore.net/~dkennedy


Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy@phx.com


Articles from July 24, 1997 & before can be accessed here