So ABC is arranging its convention coverage around an exhibition football game. NBC is giving us just the acceptance speeches. And CBS, well, its execs would be a lot happier to lock viewers inside the Big Brother bathroom. The horror, the horror…
After all, political conventions are “democracy in action,” writes Terry Golway in a lengthy article in American Heritage. “They are a major force in our democracy,” insists PBS’s Jim Lehrer. “They’re part of our political heritage,” cries Cokie Roberts. “This is the moment when the campaign becomes real,” notes CNN executive vice president Gail Evans.
Don’t get me wrong. As a journalist, I am bullishness itself on political conventions. I am in favor of just about any form of welfare payment to journalists, particularly those that allow us to catch up with old friends while staying in decent hotels and filling up on mountains of free food and liquor offered up by every corporation with a potential antitrust suit on its neck. Hell, Camp Monomoy was never this much fun. Given that there’s little danger of actual news being committed, this schmoozapalooza goes on pretty much uninterrupted.
But I wish someone would explain what any of it has to do with “democracy.” Golway gives it his best shot. Conventions, he argues, “provide an important function for party activists who regard their delegate credentials as tickets to a slice of history.” Well, yes, but just about everything is a slice of history. Across town at JFK Stadium at Live Aid fifteen years ago, Mick Jagger sang on one stage with Tina Turner while Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood backed up Bob Dylan on another. This is history too, but don’t expect 16,000 journalists to cover your own personal re-creation of it. Golway also quotes political consultant Hank Sheinkopf, who opines, “Every four years children get to see adults talking about the political system in a serious way at the conventions. And the rest of the country gets to see their fellow citizens–the delegates–participating in the political system. That’s not unimportant.” Well, Mr. Sheinkopf, I’m afraid it is. Children can see adults talking about the political system nearly every minute of every day on CNN, MSNBC, FNC and C-Span, and I’m not so sure it’s good for them. USA Today reported that in 1996, ABC gave the GOP convention podium only thirty-four of sixty minutes during its first night of coverage. The following night the speakers received just twenty-six minutes of sixty-six. The rest was advertising and a lot of happytalk from Peter, Sam and “the Cokester,” as the Saminator likes to call her.