CLEVELAND — The balloons have already been stuffed into the rafters. The nominee is already known. The story lines are few.
Yet 15,000 journalists — six for every one of the 2,500 delegates here — have encamped for the Republican National Convention. Despite the news media’s exhaustively chronicled (by the news media) financial problems, there seems to be no slowdown in the intensity and investment by media companies in covering Donald Trump’s now-inevitable coronation as the party’s standard-bearer.
The central media corridor, a kind of wonk Woodstock (with better food), is an arcade along East Fourth Street, adjacent to Quicken Loans Arena. Outfits like Bloomberg, CNN, MSNBC, Twitter and The Washington Post have taken over storefronts on the street to hype their presence. Media types are chockablock, instantly identifiable by their gold plastic badges and their complaints about security hassles, credential foul-ups and dicey WiFi access, among other things.
The question is: Why are so many gathered for what is largely a scripted and preordained event? Barring unforeseen developments — and political conventions are engineered to avert unforeseen developments — the political conventions may be the least efficient news events that the media covers.
“Over-covered?” spluttered veteran political journalist Fred Barnes, incredulous at the question as he stood on the bustling stretch of Fourth Street. Yes, they’re over-covered, said Barnes, the executive editor of the Weekly Standard: “There’s a rule of thumb that the more unimportant the convention, the more the media covers it. This is preposterous,” he said.
On the other hand, Trump — who has both bashed and basked in media attention — is reason unto himself for the spike in the usual over-coverage, said David Gergen, the CNN analyst. “The conventions became less relevant as a news story once the era of picking them in smoke-filled rooms was over,” he said. But even with his nomination assured, Trump is a different, unpredictable candidate who has fascinated the public and the media, Gergen pointed out.
Besides, he said, this Republican convention has another, unpredictable and potentially explosive new story line: “The threat of violence.”
But the political conventions represent something more than a bunch of news stories to media organizations, said Al Hunt, the longtime Washington bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal who is now a columnist for Bloomberg View. They are an opportunity for political journalists to meet sources and network with people who may be valuable to them in the future, he said. It’s like any convention, be it of dentists or insurance salepeople.
“If you’re coming here to write an important story, odds are you’ll fail,” said Hunt, who has covered 22 conventions dating back to the 1972 Republican meeting in Miami Beach. “I came here hoping to meet a lot of people and maybe understand Trump and his supporters a little better.”
Hunt remembers meeting some of Ronald Reagan’s supporters at the GOP convention in 1976. “I thought they were crazies. I came here with the notion that Donald Trump’s people are strange and weird, but you have to meet them and know them before you can jump to conclusions. But I’m the first to admit that that’s not a good story for Wednesday.”
Hunt was certainly practicing a see-and-be-seen approach. He was interviewed Sunday afternoon while he stood on a corner of media row, in front of Bloomberg’s restaurant and meeting space, as delegates and dignitaries (look, there’s Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker!) streamed past. To the many who stopped to say hello, Hunt introduced them to a companion: “Have you met David Eisenhower?” he said by way of introducing the 34th president’s grandson and namesake of Camp David.
As such, the political conventions act as a kind of trade convention for the news media, a twice-every-four-years gathering, said James Warren, the former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune who now writes for Vanity Fair and the Poynter journalism institute. “It’s less about the drama of the plot,” he said, “and more about having all the smart people and big shots in one room.”
Although it’s impossible to quantify, that’s valuable in a social-media era in which so much reporting is done quickly, superficially and from remote locales, he said. For all the limitations of “the story” at the conventions, he said, at least journalists at the convention can see, hear and feel the story.
“If you want to cover the fire, you have to go to the fire. There’s nothing like going to the picket line where [the workers] are striking. . . . We have too many people chained to their desks in New York and D.C. To me, this is more flesh and blood.”