Jay Rosen sees a basic contradiction in the journalistic invasion of the Democratic convention.
"By coming and making news of the event, you're saying this is important," says the chairman of New York University's journalism department. "Then you get there as reporters and say this is all fake. If it's that bad, why are you here?"
Other than the parties, the free food and the general sense of a camp reunion with 15,000 buddies, it's a question that media people ask themselves every four years, especially with the broadcast networks cutting back to just three hours and blowing off tomorrow night's proceedings.
Is the coronation of John Kerry just an empty, old-politics event being kept afloat by new-media hype? Or do conventions, for all their token celebrities and timed balloon drops, still matter?
Rosen is here to chronicle the convention for his Web column, PressThink, along with about 30 other online entrepreneurs who will be placed on "Blogger Boulevard" and offer an idiosyncratic take on the proceedings.
Conventions can be interesting, says Rosen, "but it would require a very different lens of journalism to show that. Rituals do have meaning, just not in the category of new information. Journalists tend to think of rituals as inherently meaningless, but they're not."
The dominant theme of the coverage, Rosen wrote online, is "irony about politics, irony about newslessness, and irony on TV about TV. That is where we are marooned today. But the irony ('one big infomercial, folks') no longer instructs or inspires anyone, professional ironizers included. It's a big dead zone in the narrative of presidential politics."
In sheer numbers, these online commentators are a relative blip compared to the combined reach of the networks. But they have a cyberpipeline to politically attuned voters. And unlike the hordes of anchors and correspondents who are at least trying to be balanced, most of the bloggers are unrepentant liberals who are here to support the nominee.
"I'm committed to seeing Bush out of office in November and want to do what I can to help," says Jeralyn Merritt, a Denver defense lawyer who writes the TalkLeft blog. "To me the purpose of a convention is solidarity and getting strength from each other and renewed commitment to a joint purpose. I am a cheerleader. I am a partisan. I am an advocate. My goal is to get everyone else stirred up."
Josh Marshall, whose alkingpointsmemo.com | http://talkingpointsmemo.com/ is one of the more popular sites, says he plans not to push his liberal views but to "capture the mood" of the convention.
"The medium sort of lends itself to that. It's hard to do that in the daily paper. I'll provide an idiosyncratic take, as opposed to being filtered through a large organization that has its own quite reasonable limits and assumptions."
But we're not talking limousine liberals here. Ezra Klein of Pandagon.net | http://pandagon.net/ wrote after he and his partner got credentials: "It's not that we want to go hobnob with stars and attend top parties, it's just that we want to give you the best damn coverage we can. That said, I have no money. So if anyone is driving to the convention from DC and would like to have my witty conversation on the way there . . . not to mention my gas money, shoot me an e-mail."
Asked why more Web denizens on the right didn't get the coveted credentials, convention spokeswoman Peggy Wilhide says 90 percent of the applications were liberal-leaning. "We tried to make it as diverse as possible," she says.
Patrick Belton of Oxblog | http://oxblog.blogspot.com/, an Oxford graduate student and self-described centrist who worked for Bill Bradley in 2000, sees the convention as "a wonderful time to take a snapshot of all different factions, who's on the rise and who's on the relative wane."
Belton has invited his blogging brethren out for a drink because "we have to cultivate a reputation for delightful alcoholism." The former Richmond resident adds: "There's a lot happening on the margins that the more established media, by dint of time and space limits, just aren't able to cover. Blogs don't have word count limits."
University of Missouri journalism professor Tom McPhail told USA Today that bloggers "are certainly not committed to being objective. They thrive on rumor and innuendo," and "should be put in a different category, like 'pretend' journalists."
But the best bloggers report, prod, provoke and critique the mainstream press, which, as Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley illustrate, has had its own credibility problems in recent years. And this year a spate of regular journalists will be doing the blogging thing, including veteran Walter Mears at the Associated Press. CNN.com will have a BlogWatch about blogs, and there's a site called ConventionBloggers.com | http://conventionbloggers.com/.
All of which underscores the central paradox of Boston: huge media hordes for an event with shrinking political significance and shrinking audiences.
Newsweek's Howard Fineman, who will be filing online dispatches from his BlackBerry on the convention floor, calls it "a real-time EKG of my response to the convention as a reporter and a yakker. We're all going to spend our time reading each other's blogs and blog our way to oblivion. If there was any real news, we'd all be too busy to blog."
Former ambassador Joe Wilson's allegations that President Bush misled the country about Saddam Hussein seeking uranium from Africa was a huge media story, fueled by an investigation into who outed his CIA-operative wife. According to a database search, NBC carried 40 stories, CBS 30 stories, ABC 18, The Washington Post 96, the New York Times 70, the Los Angeles Times 48.
But a Senate Intelligence Committee report that contradicts some of Wilson's account and supports Bush's State of the Union claim hasn't gotten nearly as much attention. "NBC Nightly News" and ABC's "World News Tonight" have each done a story. But CBS hasn't reported it--despite a challenge by Republican Chairman Ed Gillespie on CBS's "Face the Nation," noting that the network featured Wilson on camera 15 times. A spokeswoman says CBS is looking into the matter.
Newspapers have done slightly better. The Post, which was the first to report the findings July 10, has run two stories, an editorial and an ombudsman's column; the New York Times two stories and an op-ed column, and the Los Angeles Times two stories. Wilson, meanwhile, has defended himself from what he calls "a Republican smear campaign" in op-ed pieces in The Post and Los Angeles Times.
The San Francisco Chronicle has suspended letters editor William Pates for contributing $400 to John Kerry this year. Such donations can "create a conflict of interest," says Editorial Page Editor John Diaz, responding to a report by the Stanford University project Grade the News. "We have to sensitive to perceptions, particularly with someone making judgments on letters to the editor."
"orrections"--headline on the New York Times column that describes its mistakes.
After hitting the network anchors, Kerry is doing newspaper interviews, such as this one with Adam Nagourney in the New York Times: | http://www.nytimes.com/2004/07/25/politics/campaign/25KERR.html?hp=&adxnnl=1&adxnnlx=1090704375-AIEVc6MIZ/ZOuyxS6q+u/g
"Senator John Kerry says he will seek to persuade voters over the next three months that he would do a 'better job than George Bush' in protecting the nation from terrorism, but he acknowledges that the president now holds an advantage on this pivotal issue.
"In an interview on Friday laying out the framework for the Democratic convention starting here on Monday, Mr. Kerry pointed to his military record and criticized Mr. Bush's terrorism policies in declaring that he would challenge the president on what polls suggest is Mr. Bush's greatest strength. Mr. Kerry said 'it takes time' for a challenger to gain public confidence on such issues, but said he was 'not worried about that.'"
Here's the most interesting paragraph:
"Mr. Kerry seemed determined to tame, at least through the four days of the convention, the intense anti-Bush fervor in his party that has been a driving dynamic of this campaign. Mr. Kerry said that he did not want the convention to turn into a parade of attacks on the president, and that his campaign was seeking to minimize the anti-Bush oratory voiced by convention speakers."
Ron Brownstein offers the same line in the Los Angeles Times | http://www.9latimes.9com/9news/9politics/92004/la-na-strategy25jul25,1,3301148.story?coll=la-home-headlines : "John F. Kerry's strategy for the Democratic National Convention rests on a bet that voters are ready to change direction and need more to be reassured about his virtues than persuaded that President Bush has failed, sources familiar with campaign strategy say. With that in mind, Democrats plan to focus more on boosting Kerry than bashing Bush at the convention that convenes Monday in Boston. And they are framing a message that, while also trying to spotlight Kerry's policy agenda, places the greatest emphasis on telling his personal story."
The Boston Globe | http://www.boston.com/news/politics/president/kerry/articles/2004/07/25/kerry_war_letters_show_his_conflicts/ has this 1968 letter from Navy enlistee Kerry:
"'I'm also so damn mad at what is happening in the good United States that there isn't anything brighter to look at on the home front' Kerry wrote to a Michael Dalby, a friend and classmate from Yale who recently rediscovered the letter. 'Would that this country could some day choose an intelligent man with honest foresight to be its president. But no, the television smile and the ad campaign will be elected.'"
Everyone is profiling Kerry this week, including Newsweek:
"In a recent interview with NEWSWEEK, | http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/5506265/site/newsweek/ Kerry protested that he's not really distant or remote. 'There's nobody who travels with me on the bus or in this campaign who thinks that,' he said. But then, in an earnest and slightly imploring manner, he went on to explain why he may have given off the impression of 'brashness.' In the interview, his manner was not stiff or lordly; if anything, he seemed humble, even vulnerable. Even so, his small, dark, deep-set eyes flashed reproachfully, as if to ask, why, after all his years of honorable public service, did he have to explain why he was unpopular in high school or is still the butt of jokes?"
Great paragraph in this Washington Post | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A10637-2004Jul24.html profile of Kerry, about his long-ago days as a Boston attorney:
"The questions Kerry grappled with as a lawyer hardly seemed as grand. In one of its more lucrative periods, Kerry & Sragow was representing bald men who had suffered grotesquely unsuccessful hair implants. Lead plaintiff Charles DePerri, then maitre d' at the exclusive Brookline Country Club, still remembers Kerry holding up color photographs of a sore in DePerri's scalp oozing and demanding of the jury -- in an oddly familiar cadence -- 'How do you ask a man to work with the public with his scalp in this horrendous condition?' DePerri was awarded $90,000 in damages."
That alone should win him the bald vote.
The New Republic's Ryan Lizza | http://www.tnr.com/doc.mhtml?i=20040802&s=trb080204 scrutinizes the lineup:
"If the Bush Republicans lack ideological self-confidence, the Kerry Democrats may have too much of it. To be sure, Kerry eschews the liberal label. And the Democratic platform is a study in moderation. But, in its choice of convention speakers, the Kerry campaign is presenting an almost shockingly realistic picture of what the Democratic Party really is. And that means liberalism is on tap virtually every night.
"The festivities begin on Monday night with Jimmy Carter, who the Clinton campaign kept off stage in 1996 because of his economic and national security weaknesses. Also that night is Clinton, who the Gore campaign tried to muzzle in 2000 for fear he would alienate moderates. Joining them is Gore himself, who has moved to within ideological spitting distance of Michael Moore.
"Tuesday night includes Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, one of the few convention speakers who has shown she can win in a red state. Also speaking are Iowa First Lady Christie Vilsack, Ron Reagan, and Teresa Heinz Kerry. And then there are the ghosts of liberalism past and future: Convention keynoter Barack Obama . . . and Ted Kennedy, the living embodiment of the pre-DLC dream that (thanks partly to Kerry) has not died.
"Wednesday night features two politicians smack in the Democratic mainstream: New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, as well as a little-known retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel turned Democratic congressional candidate named Steve Brozak. It ends with Elizabeth and John Edwards. Thursday night is given over to Kerry's family and one of his Vietnam boatmates, along with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Introducing the nominee will be former Georgia Senator Max Cleland, a decent, embittered man who could teach a course on how not to win in a conservative state.
"I doubt the Kerry campaign tried to stock the podium with liberals. They simply chose the people in the party with mass appeal, great promise, or both. Being Democrats, they tinkered to make sure no race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation was overlooked. And, this being post-September 11 America, they threw in people with military backgrounds. All this is, in its way, admirably honest. And, unsurprisingly, it produced a convention roster that looks--and sounds--like the Democratic Party."
National Review | http://nationalreview.com/issue/editors200407220839.asp betrays some unhappiness with the president:
"The negative side of the Bush campaign seems to be shaping up reasonably well. Republicans seem to be reaching the conclusion that they should attack Kerry less as a flip-flopper than as a liberal: Nobody is scared of flip-floppers' winning high office. They seem also to see that they can call Kerry's values into question by attacking his policies rather than his character.
"Republicans will criticize Kerry as a man who will make it harder to fight terrorism, will raise taxes, and will happily stand by as the courts deform marriage. We would change the negative strategy at the margins. The critique of Kerry on the war will not work, in our judgment, unless it becomes a critique of his entire party. But the fundamentals of the campaign against Kerry are sound.
"Where, meanwhile, is the positive, substantive side of the campaign? People are noticing that the president has not presented an agenda for his second term should he be re-elected. He is being advised to unveil such an agenda on the theory that it could be attractive to voters. That is true. But it is also true that the president owes voters an explanation of what he wants to do in his second term before he asks us to support him. How does he intend to advance conservative goals during the next four years? Presumably he does not want his administration to drift the way second terms often do. But if he does not campaign on a conservative agenda now, what chance does he have of successfully acting on it later?
"According to reports, Bush may announce some initiatives imminently. We will measure the scope of his ambition by whether he addresses Social Security. Nowhere is presidential leadership more needed."
In case you missed this story, Fox News | http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,124885,00.html has it:
"Women senators are expressing outrage at a controversial judicial nominee who co-authored a 1997 article with his wife in which he suggested biblical passages about wives being subservient to their husbands should be taken literally.
"J. Leon Holmes -- nominated by President Bush to serve on the federal district court in Arkansas -- and his wife wrote the article for the Arkansas Catholic Review that reads 'the wife is to subordinate herself to the husband . . . the woman is to place herself under the authority of the man.'"
Andrew Sullivan | http://www.andrewsullivan.com picks up on the item:
"This one believes that wives should be subservient to their husbands. Well, the Bible says so! And that's how you interpret the Constitution, isn't it? And if the Constitution suggests otherwise, you can always amend it or strip courts of the ability to review legislation. Today's Santorumized GOP: gays in 'conversion therapy,' women in the kitchen, blacks in the front row of the convention line-up."
I have unwittingly become a pawn in the latest theory about who leaked the Sandy Berger probe story, courtesy of Jonah Goldberg | http://www.nationalreview.com/thecorner/04_07_18_corner-archive.asp#036149:
"There's another tidbit as to why it's not absurd to think this was a Lanny Davis special. The fellow who broke the Berger story was John Solomon. And According to Davis, Solomon was 'the most fair' reporter he knew because Solomon was willing to take so many items from Davis. For example, from an April 12, 1999 article by Howard Kurtz:
"In 'Truth to Tell,' out next month, Davis argues for 'good,' factually based spin over "bad," deceptive spin -- but concedes that some of his spin was 'so transparent that it is amazing that we thought we could get away with it.'. . . .
"Davis coins the marvelously bureaucratic phrase 'deep-background private placement' to describe negative stories about the White House that he leaked to put the least damaging version in play. Davis's favorite outlet was the Associated Press, not only because it is 'notoriously fact-oriented and fair' but because once a story was on the wire, such newspapers as The Washington Post and New York Times 'would not be inclined to give it front-page play.'
"Thus, Davis called the reporter he deemed most fair, the AP's John Solomon, with documents suggesting that Clinton had made fund-raising calls from the White House residence. The leak occurred on July 3, 1997, so the story would get lost on the Fourth of July holiday."
OpinionJournal's James Taranto | http://www.opinionjournal.com/best/?id=110005397 picks up the tale:
"Davis appeared on Linda Chavez's radio program, and a caller named David asked him if he was the Berger leaker. He evaded the question."
For the record, I'm not buying it. Lanny leaking the story so it wouldn't come out as an October surprise? Sounds wild to me. Still, he didn't deny it. . . .
Buzz Around Boston
The security line stretched as far as the eye could see -- and then some.
It took forever to make it to the metal detectors at National Airport on Saturday morning -- and then, even without my shoes, belt and computer, I got pulled out for the full wand treatment.
Not a good omen, I thought.
The shuttle flight was packed with media people -- Jim Lehrer, Ray Suarez, Roger Simon (who, by the way, has the uncanny ability to live for a week out of one small suitcase). But shouldn't it have occurred to the good folks at the TSA that the D.C.-Boston route would be unusually busy this weekend?
Landed in the rain. Hopped in a cab, hit the Ted Williams Tunnel and -- total gridlock. Took forever to get downtown -- and this was before the city shut down I-93, the main north-south highway here. This did not fill me with confidence. Boston, after all, has never hosted a major political convention before.
Activists with blue-and-red Kerry/Edwards signs lined the route to the media party at the massive new Boston Convention Center (did they expect to change any minds?). Past the red carpet, there were thousands of journos, lots of free booze and virtually nothing to eat when I was there (a dangerous combination).
Up in the VIP area, publishers, bureau chiefs and reporters were all buzzing about how there won't be much news at the convention, despite the large contingents they have brought with them (The Post has 60). One prominent newspaper executive wondered why ABC, CBS and NBC would bring large numbers of people to Boston and then air only one hour a night on three of the nights. It wasn't like 1980, after all, when Ronald Reagan actually discussed a co-presidency with Gerald Ford and there was something meaty to cover. Another executive said his son wanted to know whether anything unexpected would happen at the convention. If it did, came the reply, it would probably be outside the hall and not at all fun to cover. Yet all the big papers are adding extra space for the week.
There were several hundred copies of the Boston Globe's biography of Kerry sitting on a table, but one of the co-authors, Michael Kranish, assured me they were not for sale. The books were being given out to media big shots as a way of spreading the word.
On Sunday morning, the cover of the Boston Herald had the city's big story -- the Red Sox/Yankees brawl at Fenway.
Did my CNN show from a gorgeous spot at the Charlestown Navy Yard, across the river from FleetCenter. An abandoned naval exercise room with dusty treadmills was used for makeup. During the show a sightseeing boat pulled up, made a loud announcement and the tourist piled off, staring at me, Bob Schieffer, Gloria Borger and Ann Compton. Nice to be the center of attention for a few brief moments.
The Post has a cozy little space in an incredibly ugly, two-story white structure outside the arena, next to the elevated subway and near the 20 porta-johns (which don't look like they'll be enough for the media mob). You only have to go through two separate metal-detector checkpoints to get there, past the ABC News banner with a 10-foot-high picture of Peter Jennings. Around the corner is Halftime Pizza, whose owner drew flak for putting up a pro-Bush banner.
Inside FleetCenter, I tried to conduct an interview, but got distracted when several pigeons, who did not have credentials, flew by.
I was talking with a colleague about how Chris Matthews seems to be on TV all the time. Later, walking past Faneuil Hall, I saw a big crowd. MSNBC was doing a show in the middle of a crowded marketplace, and there was Chris, yakking away. At one point he played to the crowd by yelling "A-Rod," the zillion-dollar Yankee shortstop who was involved in a brawl with the Red Sox at Fenway. Everyone booed on cue.
Bumped into an Atlantic Monthly editor whose magazine has a Ryan Lizza piece coming out on Barack Obama, the Illinois Senate candidate. Seems Obama had a few-less-than-flattering things to say about Kerry before he was picked to keynote the convention, and Tim Russert asked him about that on "Meet the Press." Only the editor couldn't find anyone on a Sunday who could post the piece online. Timing is everything in this business.
On the security line this morning, there were two television cameras shooting footage of all of us standing there waiting (amid a disgusting pile of discarded water bottles, soda cans and coffee cups). It was the ultimate self-referential moment. We're all covering each other now.
Deborah Norville was on line. She said she had "parachuted in" to cover the convention for "Inside Edition," noting that MSNBC has preempted her prime-time show for live coverage.
Jesse Jackson was just inside the gates. A Boston Globe reporter asked what he thought of Bill Clinton's speech tonight. He compared Clinton to Nelson Mandela, praised Kerry and recounted a conversation Friday in which he asked Bush for a meeting on securing a proper (read, non-Florida) vote.
"He said I'll talk to Karl Rove and I'll get back to you," Jackson said, before launching a discourage on hunger in America.
Sometimes the news is inescapable.
This just in: Just read a stinging critique on how utterly liberal a newspaper the New York Times is. Even more amazing, it appeared in the New York Times. Ombudsman Daniel Okrent | http://www.nytimes.com/2004/07/25/weekinreview/25bott.html draws blood again. To wit:
"For now my concern is the flammable stuff that ignites the right. These are the social issues: gay rights, gun control, abortion and environmental regulation, among others. And if you think The Times plays it down the middle on any of them, you've been reading the paper with your eyes closed. . . .
"Start with the editorial page, so thoroughly saturated in liberal theology that when it occasionally strays from that point of view the shocked yelps from the left overwhelm even the ceaseless rumble of disapproval from the right. . . .
"In the Sunday magazine, the culture-wars applause-o-meter chronically points left. On the Arts & Leisure front page every week, columnist Frank Rich slices up President Bush, Mel Gibson, John Ashcroft and other paladins of the right in prose as uncompromising as Paul Krugman's or Maureen Dowd's. . . .
"For those who also believe the news pages cannot retain their credibility unless all aspects of an issue are subject to robust examination, it's disappointing to see The Times present the social and cultural aspects of same-sex marriage in a tone that approaches cheerleading. So far this year, front-page headlines have told me that 'For Children of Gays, Marriage Brings Joy,' (March 19, 2004); that the family of 'Two Fathers, With One Happy to Stay at Home,' (Jan. 12, 2004) is a new archetype; and that 'Gay Couples Seek Unions in God's Eyes,' (Jan. 30, 2004). I've learned where gay couples go to celebrate their marriages; I've met gay couples picking out bridal dresses; I've been introduced to couples who have been together for decades and have now sanctified their vows in Canada, couples who have successfully integrated the world of competitive ballroom dancing, couples whose lives are the platonic model of suburban stability.
"Every one of these articles was perfectly legitimate. Cumulatively, though, they would make a very effective ad campaign for the gay marriage cause. You wouldn't even need the articles: run the headlines over the invariably sunny pictures of invariably happy people that ran with most of these pieces, and you'd have the makings of a life insurance commercial.
"On a topic that has produced one of the defining debates of our time, Times editors have failed to provide the three-dimensional perspective balanced journalism requires."
I hope Okrent is ready for a flood of angry e-mails--from other Times staffers.
Feed the Press
A new crisis has gripped the media village at FleetCenter, one that threatens to overwhelm the message the Democrats are trying to convey.
As some of the nation's most esteemed journalists make their way into their work quarters, the Secret Service is confiscating their liquids.
A plastic bottle of water -- seized. A small bottle of juice -- give it up, buddy!
The Secret Service is blaming the DNC. I, on behalf of the thirsty masses, demand an explanation.
They will be responsible for any dehydration that occurs.
Not to get conspiratorial or anything, but could this be an attempt to steer the journalistic captives toward the outrageously overpriced snack bar? Media people are grumbling about the $2 bags of chips and $9.50 for sandwiches that, shall we say, are not getting rave reviews.
Long hours, cramped quarters, these we can endure on behalf of a nation thirsting for news. But not if we're left high and dry.