A Big Moment for the Small Screen

Barack Obama's speech last night at Invesco Field made for magnificent TV pictures.
Barack Obama's speech last night at Invesco Field made for magnificent TV pictures. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
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By Tom Shales
Friday, August 29, 2008

Television convened the nation last night, as it does for rare momentous occasions, as presidential candidate Barack Obama brought the Democratic National Convention to a rousing, cheering conclusion with his galvanizing, mesmerizing acceptance speech.

Maybe this is the age of YouTube politics, and maybe not. The biggest moments still happen on national television.

While the previous three nights of the convention were held in Denver's Pepsi Center, the grand finale was staged as a near-biblical spectacular at the enormous Invesco Field, which last night held 85,000 people. It made for magnificent TV pictures, which was the point.

The enormous audience was just a prop, really, to help give Obama's speech more visceral and emotional impact. Obama is a masterful public speaker, able to adapt old-fashioned oratorical techniques to the intimate medium of television for maximum effect. He also knows how to keep talking over cheers and applause at just the right moments, building a point to a climax as the crowd's cheers crescendo.

He knows he's closer to the microphone than the crowd is and his words will be heard above the din.

There could be little reason to wonder, after watching Obama's speech, why he captivates and inspires so many people. The point was emphasized before he even began, when the Democrats watched a beautifully produced film biography of the candidate by "Inconvenient Truth" filmmaker Davis Guggenheim. The fact that Obama is the first African American to be nominated for the office of president seemed almost incidental as he spoke, even if the landmark nature of the event is what brought millions of Americans to their TV sets.

Obama was refreshingly combative, especially considering the nicey-nicey tone of the convention's first couple of nights, as watched on cable networks CNN and MSNBC (and, of course, C-SPAN). The previous nights led MSNBC's Chris Matthews to complain on the air that the Democrats were being wimpy. "Sometimes your enemy is your best friend in politics," he said, calling for more attacks on polices of the Bush-Cheney administration. Obama and, earlier, Al Gore (unfortunately rushing through his speech at breakneck speed), came through last night.

Generally speaking, the cable networks devoted too much time to the convention and the broadcast networks devoted too little -- in the latter case, one small hour per night. How churlish, especially during a month with low viewing levels and rerun-dominated program schedules.

With many hours to fill, the cable networks stooped to occasionally questionable tactics, and anchors had near-violent arguments on-camera. That may have been entertaining, but it was as if the cable networks weren't covering the convention so much as staging their own alternative event: the story of the news stars and their squabbles.

The tendency to emphasize the reaction of black Americans over that of the general body politic often seemed narrow-minded. Deplorably enough last night, a CNN reporter stationed in Times Square, where New Yorkers watched on a jumbo screen, questioned two African American men, and no one else, about Obama and made reference to "two African American women" in the crowd who'd been enjoying the convention. This was pure deplorable boobery, insulting to viewers and to Americans.

There were many little errors of judgment along the way. David Shuster, an NBC reporter on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" program, at one point referred to yesterday as being the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "infamous" "I have a dream" speech. Infamous? One of the great speeches of the 20th century? Many TV reporters seem not to know the difference between "famous" and "infamous" nor between "fame" and "notoriety."

But never mind that. This was Barack Obama's big night, and it was the nation's big night, too -- one of those times that watching the screen you may have felt a connection to all the other millions of viewers watching in all the other millions of homes. It seemed that something great was beginning, and to paraphrase the name of an ancient TV news program, we were there.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company