Picture, The cleanup begins: Sweeping off the podium in Detroit; by AP
Monday night, one reporter turned to a colleague during Donny and Marie's onslaught of "entertainment" for the Republican National Convention. "Why," asked the reporter, "am I here?"
There were 11,000 journalists in Detroit this week who might have asked the same question. Maybe it was less. Who cared? There were too many people reporting and not enough news to go around. Print and TV journalists were crawling all over each other to find something, anything, to cover, eventually resorting to covering each other.
At one point early on, Don Hewitt, producer of "60 Minutes," was regaling a group of colleagues about Mike Wallace's interview with Patti Reagan, who had driven up in a car with anti-nuke stickers. Five well-known media faces drained.
"Christ," said one reporter only half-jokingly. "There goes the whole ball game. Patti Reagan was going to be my ace in the hole. I might as well go home. There's nothing left to write."
ABC's Sam Donaldson fared no better. "I haven't gotten any hot stories," he moaned Tuesday night. "I got on the air last light one time . . . If two months ago management had come to me and said that although I would be valuable in Detroit, they would rather have me stay with the president in Georgia, I would have been angry and hit the ceiling. Now I wish they had."
There are those who are rethinking the whole question of convention coverage, despite the last minute Ford flurry, which did liven things up for at least one day.
After it was all over, Donaldson's boss, ABC News President Roone Arledge, said, "It's ridiculous, it's nonsense. The reason you have x number of reporters is because you have all those hours to fill. Thursday night the only meaningful thing was Reagan's speech. Yet we were on from 7:30 to 11:30 and it was 90 percent nonsense."
This year ABC took one hour more on Monday and Tuesday nights to do their "20/20" show and Aldredge said they should have done it Thursday as well. The ideal convention coverage, he said, is to "cover it like you would any other story. If something is happening, cover it. If it's not, do an hour." He said because of the press apparatus already in place "it's like the military with hardware. They want to use it."
This year, only 48 percent of the American public watched the convention on any network, all three of which will have spent $15 million on coverage by the end of the Democratic convention in New York next month. "The majority rejected the conventions," Arledge said. "The thing that troubles me is that the networks cover conventions like 1956." He also says that because of the change in the primary system "four years from now I don't think you'll see any networks covering gavel to gavel. This is silly . . . Eventually if you turn people off because they have to watch the conventions -- all this anachronistic stuff they do -- you'll turn them off to the whole political system."
Dick Wald, vice president of ABC News, agrees. "We watch these endless demonstrations, all phony, and we make a 1952 news judgement about a 1936 Busby Berkeley spectacular, based on a 1926 reality."
Bill Leonard, president of CBS News, believes the convention coverage is "overkill." "Someday, some party is going to have the guts to put on a one-day conventon. There's nothing here that couldn't be done in a day. Not a thing. We sould be putting our money elsewhere. But gosh it's hard to make the decision not to build that booth. We've been chewing on that bullet, but nobody's actually broken a tooth on it."
In the midst of the 1 1/2 hour demonstration on Wednesday night after Reagan was nominated, several stunned-looking British journalists walked up to a group of American journalists. "This whole process is positively insane," pronounced one of the British journalists with obvious contempt. At first the Americans tried loyally to defend the system, then gave up as one of them sighed and finally agreed, "You're right."
In fact there was a touch of insanity to the Republican convention this year. It was a dinosaur of spectacle going through the motions of what was once a necessary process, clumping aroung, waving its tail, occasionally hitting on someting by chance rather than design. And since there was relatively little for the delegates to do except hang out and party, they acted particularly silly. Those people out there never would have permitted their children to behave that way.
There's one person, however, who still has a great time at conventions, believes in their value, and has a true sense of nogstalia about them, and that is Walter Cronkite. He will be retiring after the Democratic convention in August, having covered every convention since 1952. He even actually went to both conventions in 1928 as a 12-year-old boy.
It's no wonder Cronkite likes time. This convention he scored the week's biggest coup by getting the Jerry Ford interview Wednesday night.
"I don't think they're outmoded at all," he said earlier this week, sitting in his anchor booth overlooking the convention hall. "Though I have no doubt there will be reforms, we may get to New York City and people will be glued to their TV sets 24-hours a day." Cronkite agrees with the others that there were more journalists at this convention than were needed, but says it's like World War I when the kaiser started his armies rolling and then couldn't pull them back.
Cronkite has a huge, thick loose-leaf notebook, which he points to with pride and affection. It contains his notes from every convention he has covered since 1952 and he reminisces about some of the past conventions, telling stories with obvious pleasure, relishing examples and anecdotes he can pull from his memory.
"What has happened," he says "what transpires on the podium, is that the convention managers try to gear it to a media event. But that's only possible if you've got a fully controlled convention."
"Do I like it?" asks Cronkite, swinging around in his chair to survey the empty room below only a few hours before convention time. "Oh yeah, I love it. I do. I like politics and bringing it together with live TV is great fun. It's the only real challenge left in the business. And I think it's important.I imagine when I fold up that book in New York there will be a touch of feeling."
He pats the book with a wistful look, then smiles. "I suppose I'll be invited back for my toothless version next time," he says. "They'll help me up to the booth." Then he adds ruefully, "maybe I won't even be able to make it up to the booth. Maybe I'll just have to do it from the floor."