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.
"Even though 99 percent of it is predictable," he says, "you always have to be prepared as a reporter for something unpredictable. That's why we're there -- just in case."
NYT on WMD
New York Times ombudsman Daniel Okrent said yesterday that some of the paper's prewar coverage of Iraq was "credulous" and boosted by "lavish front-page display and heavy-breathing headlines," while more skeptical pieces about whether Saddam Hussein possessed banned weapons "were played as quietly as a lullaby."
Five days after a Times editor's note acknowledged many shortcomings -- far too late, says Okrent -- the paper's first ombudsman delivered a stinging critique of what he called "flawed journalism." Naming names, he said an April 2003 story by Judith Miller about an Iraqi scientist claiming that weapons of mass destruction had recently been destroyed "constituted an ongoing minuet of startling assertion followed by understated contradiction." Okrent said a February 2003 piece by Patrick Tyler "all but declared a direct link between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein," and that "other stories pushed Pentagon assertions so aggressively you could almost sense epaulets sprouting on the shoulders of editors."
Calling the coverage an "institutional" failure, he wrote that "readers encountered some rather breathless stories built on unsubstantiated 'revelations' that, in many instances, were the anonymity-cloaked assertions of people with vested interests." And when "the stories themselves later broke apart, in many instances Times readers never found out." (And they never found out that the niece of one coddled source, Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi, worked in the paper's Kuwait bureau, he notes.) Okrent's prescription: more reporting on the suspect sources to "reveal how the Times itself was used to further their cunning campaign."
Asked why he published an editor's note last week after initially declining to reexamine the WMD stories, Executive Editor Bill Keller says: "Mainly because it was a distraction. This buzz about our coverage had become a kind of conventional wisdom, much of it overwrought and misinformed. It was getting in the way of stories we were writing or wanted to write."
Former editor Howell Raines, in an e-mail to Los Angeles Times columnist Tim Rutten, disputed the note's contention that he and his deputies had engaged in what he called a "reckless rushing" of scoops into the paper. Raines took a swipe at Keller, a former managing editor, and Managing Editor Jill Abramson, a former Washington bureau chief, saying they had worked with Miller: "It seems to me unfair to single out Judy Miller, even in a blind reference, or to cite individual stories by other reporters without drawing aside the veil of anonymity around un-bylined editors who worked with them."
Mort Kondracke's column in last week's Washington Times had some rather unorthodox names: Defense Secretary Donald Ruffed. Democratic candidate John Gerry. The Bookings Institutionalize. The Viet Congo. Deposed Iraqi dictator Adam Hussies and the country's national security adviser, Moonwalk al-Rubies.
"It's just one of those embarrassing things that makes you want to slit your wrists," says Commentary section editor Mary Lou Forbes. "It was fine when I saw it." The apparent culprit: a runaway computer spell-check program.
That Does Not Compute
Google is proud of its online news operation, which continuously serves up the most popular stories without human intervention.
But there is lingering resentment at a journalism-style operation where judgments are made by some secret mathematical formula (no whiny workers or union wages). Such feelings surfaced when Google News was a finalist for an EPpy award for Best Internet News Service With More Than 1 Million Monthly Visitors. The other contenders were the Financial Times Web site and WashingtonPost.com, which took the prize.
Larry Kramer, CEO of MarketWatch.com, criticized Google's nomination at the awards ceremony, which are sponsored by Editor & Publisher and Adweek. "I like Google -- it's a terrific service, doing really neat stuff and breaking new ground," he says. "But this award is supposed to be about journalism. It's not journalism in any way, shape or form. . . . It's a joke. You cannot replace judgment. You just can't."
Adding to its robotlike reputation, an automated-sounding voice claiming to be that of Google spokeswoman Evelyn Rodriguez said she would have no comment on the nomination, or on anything at all having to do with Google News.
"If you come from Buffalo, everything else is easy." -- Tim Russert, quoted in the Washington Post Magazine, May 23
". . . Russert, a Boston native . . ." -- Washington Post Style section, May 27 (The correct answer: Buffalo.)