Too Nice For Their Own -- and Our -- Good
By Tom Shales
Thursday, July 29, 2004; Page C01
In his speech last night accepting the nomination for vice president on the Democratic ticket, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina tried to get the crowd in Boston chanting along with him, especially on the phrase "Hope is on the way." But the bland and platitudinous nature of the speech only served to support the widely held view that political conventions have become anachronisms.
And the Democrats' namby-pamby decision to go positive -- not to attack the arguably very, very vulnerable administration of George W. Bush -- has put a pall of niceness over the proceedings that, try as they might, cranky-minded TV commentators haven't done much to dispel. Edwards accused the Republicans, particularly hit man Dick Cheney, of negative attacks and asked rhetorically, "Aren't you sick of it?"
But a little hard-core, down-and-dirty political colloquy would seem more than appropriate for a time in which Americans are threatened by international terrorism on one side and economic woes on the other. Edwards did attempt, if briefly, to hit those two nails on the head, saying to terrorist leaders, "We will destroy you," and lamenting that having a full-time job and still living in poverty is unacceptable. "Not in our America," he said, beginning another chant.
Bob Schieffer of CBS News later told Dan Rather that "it was some kind of speech," that Edwards had done "a very good job here tonight" and that it was no wonder the senator had been an effective lawyer. Was one of his courtroom tactics leading juries in chants, perchance?
A viewer could have come away from the speech with the impression that Edwards was saying "a Kerry-Edwards administration will be even better than Bush-Cheney" rather than "the current administration has got to go." He didn't offer enough motivation for changing leadership in the middle of an apparently intractable war.
Before the speech, Democrats and broadcasters were all aghast that the convention's scheduled hour of prime-time coverage might run over (the horror!) because the irascible Al Sharpton got tired of his scripted speech and departed from it for several minutes, stretching out his time. You'd have thought he'd slapped the queen, to quote Liz Smith. Everyone ran around in apoplexy at this hubris -- even the network newsniks who'd done nothing but complain about the convention being too planned and scripted.
You can't have it both ways: drastically limit coverage because the conventions are now planned to be TV shows and then cry foul when something really affecting manages to happen. Katie Couric told viewers of yesterday's "Today" show on NBC that Illinois legislator Barack Obama had "electrified" the crowd with his stunningly eloquent speech Tuesday night. Too bad NBC refused to show it. Too bad profit-mad NBC-Universal was determined to air its lame reality shows and sitcom reruns instead.
And then Couric tells us we really should've been there. The networks are just plain nuts.
Peter Jennings certainly has turned out to be the hardest-working anchorman, or perhaps network journalist of any kind, at the convention, because ABC News is offering virtual gavel-to-gavel coverage -- but only on its ABC News Now channel, which can be seen on AOL, the Internet service, and in cities where ABC affiliates are equipped for digital TV. Washington is one of those, so Jennings and company can be watched almost all day on Channel 7.2. Yes, 7.2; when digital TV arrives, all the channels will sort of subdivide in that way. Digital TVs are being sold now but not in huge numbers.
Thus ABC's coverage has been not only the best but also a sign of the future. In 2008, it is safe to predict, many more stations on all the networks will have these additional digital channels and unless their relentless, irresponsible greed prevails, they can dedicate a channel to full convention coverage for those viewers who prefer that option -- and maybe conventions will start to mean more again. (Of course, the local station may elect to devote subsidiary channels to home-shopping or some other moneymaking schemes).
Coverage by cable networks lasts longer but strays often from whatever is happening on the vast stage (with the vast screen behind it) in Boston's FleetCenter. On Fox, gabby and opinionated commentators occasionally will allow a few minutes of a speech to air, but then they return to the spotlight they love so much for their own use.
Surprisingly, Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly did not manage to be the most ridiculous of that crew last night. Chris Matthews, getting a trifle desperate over on MSNBC, sank to an absurd new low when he hauled in actor Steve Buscemi, who seemed to be visiting the convention on a whim, and asked if he wasn't outraged at seeing Sharpton because Sharpton "built his career lying about cops."
How's that again? Buscemi looked mystified, and no wonder. Even Matthews began to look mystified, as if an evil gremlin had popped out of his stomach and started asking nonsensically contentious questions.
Jennings showed up even on Fox, where he flattered O'Reilly by sitting down for an interview. O'Reilly had been braying about the convention being dull: "It's bloodless, it's lifeless, it's zombies" (bet he won't say that about the Republican convention). Jennings listened politely but then said sagaciously of the convention as an American institution, "I don't see any point in being offended by it." The networks have got to look for a better convention story than the hoary old bore about how conventions don't matter any more.
It makes them sound like shills for the corporate front offices, who hate to lose an hour of profit-making pap even in the middle of summer.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company