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Not Much News, but Journalists Can't Make Themselves Scarce

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 25, 2008

DENVER, Aug. 24 -- Inthe end, reporters were finally able to crack the wall of silence surrounding Barack Obama's running mate, but only by staying up mighty late.

It was 12:52 a.m. Saturday when CNN's John King reached a fourth source and reported that the senator from Illinois had chosen Joe Biden. That capped a week-long wallow in which journalists kept reporting and speculating that Obama might announce a decision at any moment -- "perhaps as soon as Wednesday morning," the New York Times said -- while the candidate refused to provide even a hint of his timing. "That's all you're gonna get," he teased reporters Thursday, meaning nada.

Perhaps the veepstakes vertigo was a fitting warm-up for a Democratic National Convention that has drawn 15,000 journalists to this mountain-ringed city, all hungry for news and yet resigned to what the Obama operation intends to make a tightly choreographed four days.

The chorus of criticism from media analysts, and even some journalists, swells every four years: Why are news outlets sending a small army to cover these highly scripted conventions? We all know that there will be little real news, that there hasn't been a contested convention since Jerry Ford edged Ronald Reagan in 1976. Is it all about "ego," as blogger Jeff Jarvis says? How many journalists does it take to cover an infomercial?

The conventions have become a partisan TV show, produced mainly for the total of four precious hours of broadcast network time and the endless loop of cable coverage. At the arena, you can often see newspaper and magazine reporters wandering around, scrounging for scraps -- a process all the more relentless now that most all of them are expected to blog around the clock. When you ask journalists about joining the mob here and in St. Paul next week, the answer often boils down to the mega-nature of the event.

"The thing about conventions is, everybody is there," says National Review's Byron York. "Everybody working on the campaigns, for the parties, for the state parties. You can run into them, talk to them, learn from them, get their cards, and it's quite useful."

New Republic writer Michael Crowley says the best intelligence is often gleaned over a beer. "The very fact of the hype attracts so many moths to the flame, and there's a ton of information you pick up that is valuable in the longer term," he says.

"It's pretty absurd that there are 15,000 media people going. There's not enough news and information to feed all those journalists. You have to be careful not to spend too much time trading conventional wisdom with other reporters."

There you have it: The convention isn't that important, but it becomes important because so many people show up, and no one wants to seem unimportant by staying home.

Of course, some media outfits engage in branding as much as in journalism. The Huffington Post is sponsoring an "oasis" near the arena featuring yoga, Thai massages, mini-facials and snacks. Google and Digg.com are sponsoring an 8,000-square-foot tent where bloggers can file or just hang out. And, just as at Oscar time, no one wants to miss the Vanity Fair party late Thursday night.

Questions about coverage are particularly acute this year as newspapers are cutting costs, space and staff. In an era of dwindling resources, it becomes harder to justify spending thousands of dollars for each staffer to join this quadrennial ritual. (The Washington Post has 38 staffers here and more from the paper's Web site, although the conditions are hardly glamorous: makeshift desks in an air-conditioned tent with ill-fitting floorboards.)

Of course, some of the assembled journalists are covering their local delegations. Others -- producers, bookers, camera operators -- are part of the contingent required to get television coverage on the air. Top news executives are here to command the troops, or simply show the flag.

The media hordes will pronounce the convention a success or a flop, much as they gave a resounding thumbs-up to Obama's selection of Biden. "A lovable guy," said MSNBC's Joe Scarborough. "A real pro," said CNN's Bill Schneider. NBC's Brian Williams said that "I've been on Amtrak with Joe Biden. He goes car to car greeting employees by name." Since the senator from Delaware has longstanding relationships with so many journalists, he is being spared the kind of skepticism that most outsider candidates would have drawn.

Now that the week's only real surprise has passed, will that take all the fizz out of the Pepsi Center pageantry? Maybe, just maybe, the no-news assumption is wrong. A major question looming over the convention is whether Hillary Clinton's most ardent supporters will swing behind Obama with any enthusiasm. That can best be gauged, it seems, by interviewing as many of them as possible.

In fact, given the enormous interest in the first African American about to claim a major-party nomination -- as the gusher of media coverage during the primary campaign showed -- you could argue that this convention is both journalistically intriguing and historically unprecedented. Obama is that rare figure who is both a politician and a celebrity, whether the latter is defined as a plus (People and Us Weekly covers) or a minus (John McCain's charge of Paris Hilton-style fame).

Perhaps the definition of news is changing. From the opening gavel to the balloon drop, the Denver extravaganza isn't likely to exhibit much spontaneity. But that doesn't mean journalists, in between the schmoozing and socializing, can't shed a little light on the state of the Democratic campaign.

Sometimes news organizations miss the story right under their noses. The broadcast networks are again limiting themselves to just one hour a night. Four years ago in Boston, a young state senator named Barack Obama took the convention by storm with a rousing speech about unity and hope, an oration without which it is hard to imagine that he would be accepting the nomination this week. Neither ABC, NBC nor CBS carried it.

View From the Top

CNN struck an exclusive deal with the Democrats for what will undoubtedly be the money shot of the convention -- a skycam atop Invesco Field, where Barack Obama will deliver his acceptance speech.

A similar request by Fox News had been turned down, and angry executives at Fox and the other networks complained at a meeting that one outfit was getting preferential treatment. On Saturday CNN agreed to share the feed in exchange for splitting the roughly $75,000 cost. CNN Washington Bureau Chief David Bohrman says that his network showed "great initiative and persistence" in pursuing the idea but that he agreed to compromise when his rivals got "incredibly upset" because "the whole country should see it."

Chiding His Colleagues

Tom Brokaw said Sunday that MSNBC's premier anchors, Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews, have not always been fair in covering the campaign.

"I think Keith has gone too far. I think Chris has gone too far," the veteran NBC newsman said at a forum sponsored by Harvard's Shorenstein press center. But Brokaw said that they are "commentators" and "not the only voices" on MSNBC and that viewers could sort it out.

He was responding to criticism from Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a Hillary Clinton supporter, who declared at the forum that "MSNBC was the official network of the Obama campaign."

CBS's Bob Schieffer defended the media's reluctance to cover John Edwards's extramarital affair, saying Edwards's candidacy was over and "I don't see that we have time to be fooling with this."

But ABC's George Stephanopoulos noted that "the level of the coverup here was kind of astonishing," and Brokaw expressed concern about this question: "What if it had been Mitt Romney? Would the press have gone after that story more aggressively?"

Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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