In Boston and New York, Predictable Coverage for Predictable Conventions
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 31, 2004; Page C01
When John Kerry floated the idea of a Democratic Party nominating convention without a nomination, TV network executives quickly harrumphed that they'd have to curtail coverage of such a faux event.
But why the sudden reluctance to send armies of journalists to stage-managed extravaganzas devoid of any hint of spontaneity? News organizations do it all the time.
The conventions haven't had a semblance of a nomination fight since President Ford and Ronald Reagan went at it in 1976. The veep selections are now announced in advance. Every speech, every introduction, every balloon drop is choreographed in advance.
But while the broadcast networks have cut back on live coverage amid declining ratings, 15,000 expense-account journalists still show up for the quadrennial gatherings, as they will this summer in Boston and New York. The cable channels will go wall-to-wall, newspapers will be awash in front-page stories, the newsmagazines will put the nominees on their covers -- even though no real news is unfolding inside the arenas.
The media quickly shot down Kerry's trial balloon of delaying the nomination so he could spend another month raising money before accepting his $75 million federal check for the general election. But does that make the Beantown bash any more real?
"If you're remotely in the sphere of being a political reporter and you're not at the convention, that means, almost de facto, you're not really a political reporter," says Vanity Fair columnist Michael Wolff. "This is really a shared identity event which has nothing to do with news and everything to do with who you want to be." At the last Democratic convention in Los Angeles, he recalls, the buzz was about "Clinton walking down the hall, the Gore kiss, all this staged stuff you might as well have seen on TV."
If a new standard emerges that journalists should boycott events where they know in advance what will happen, all sorts of coverage could be jeopardized:
• Presidential inaugurations. The commander in chief shows up on the Capitol steps, takes the oath, reads a canned speech and everybody parties. How predictable is that? The only unplanned outcome was when William Henry Harrison spoke during a snowstorm in 1841, caught pneumonia and died.
• Corporate conference calls. Top executives declare that (a) things are looking up in the widget business, or (b) widgets have had a tough time lately but things will be looking up in the future. All setbacks are temporary. Enron's calls were among the most upbeat in the business world.
• Sideline interviews. Is there anything more stupefying than an overpaid athlete mouthing cliches after a game? "We just stuck to the game plan. . . . I was seeing the ball real good. . . . We're taking it one day at a time. . . . My shots just kept dropping." And while we're at it, when was the last time any news emerged from the hordes of reporters flying to a sunny locale for two weeks of pre-Super Bowl hype?
• Congressional resolutions. Why in the world should reporters cover these nonbinding votes, such as "Sense of the Senate" resolutions, that affect absolutely nothing? If lawmakers don't make it count, why should news organizations bother to cover the speechifying?
• The White House Correspondents' Association Dinner. Hotshot journalists in black tie arrive at the Hilton Washington, network, eat bad food, listen to polite jokes from the president, then complain about the whole thing while heading to the hipper post-dinner parties. Same deal every year.
• Cicadas. A bunch of ugly-looking bugs burrow out of their holes, create a loud buzz, get squished and disappear for another 17 years. For younger folks, this is obviously a new experience. But is it worth all these invasion-of-Washington stories?
Roger Simon, the U.S. News columnist who predicted that Kerry's scheme was too "stupid" to succeed, admits he would have gone to the convention anyway.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
_____More Media Notes_____
Survey Finds Angst-Strained Wretches in the Fourth Estate (The Washington Post, May 24, 2004)
Seymour Hersh, At the Front Lines On War Scandals (The Washington Post, May 19, 2004)
Scrambling for Cover -- and Coverage (The Washington Post, May 17, 2004)
A Kerry-Worrying Trend (The Washington Post, May 10, 2004)
Fresh on the Page and Hot on the Trail (The Washington Post, May 3, 2004)