No-News Conventions

Posted July 30, 2004 at 5:19pm

Purists and nostalgics lamented to no end last week as network television limited coverage of the Democratic National Convention to just three hours spread over four nights. Count us as nostalgics, too — for the days when political conventions were places where news was actually made, or where, at least, interesting political things happened. Regrettably, those days are long gone.

A good new book is out to remind fans of politics about how things used to be: “Happy Days Are Here Again,” an account of the 1932 Democratic convention written by the late Steve Neal, the gifted political editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, who tragically died at age 54 earlier this year. That convention, held before the advent of television, would have been worth covering gavel-to-gavel, as New York Gov. Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his shrewd political aides struggled to turn their front-runnerhood into a nomination. To do that, they had to vanquish an assemblage of political plotters led by rabble-rousing Louisiana Gov. Huey Long.

Many other conventions have been worth the presence of thousands of journalists and the expenditure of millions of dollars. Some are obvious: 1964 in Atlantic City, with the fight over which Mississippi delegation to seat; 1968 in Chicago, with the rioting in the streets. And more recently, the Reagan-Ford contest in Kansas City in 1976, and even both gatherings in 1980, have offered some suspense. That year, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) gave President Carter fits, while on the Republican side, there was a vice presidential boomlet for Gerald Ford. As you can tell, our standards for what constitutes “newsworthy” are not sky-high. Any good story will do.

But let’s face it, political conventions have become boring. The parties’ nominees are selected long before the delegates arrive. There are no credentials fights, no platform disagreements. Conventions have become mere theatrical performances — masquerades, in fact, in which Republicans strive to portray themselves as “compassionate” and “diverse” and Democrats try to sound tough, by parading platoons of generals, and devout, by talking a lot about God.

Even for us way-inside-the-Beltway political devotees, conventions have lost their appeal. Time was when Members of Congress spent time on the convention floor to fire up delegates for the campaigns to come. Now, they seem to spend all their time out of sight in plush hotel rooms wooing campaign contributors.

The consequence of all this is that, sad to say, the major TV networks have it about right. What’s worth their time and money are the presidential and vice presidential acceptance speeches, which are legitimate news events, and perhaps a keynote address by an ex-president or a rising star. For citizens who take their politics more seriously, the cable channels will provide more coverage, with commentary, and C-SPAN and PBS will provide complete coverage. Even when all the networks were covering the events on Monday night, only 13.5 million Americans bothered to tune in. Presumably millions more did hear Sens. John Edwards (N.C.) on Wednesday and John Kerry (Mass.) on Thursday, but that just makes our point.

We’re not against the parties’ holding four-day conventions if they choose. And host cities likely will insist that delegates be in residence and spending money for that long. But we agree with NBC anchor Tom Brokaw, who said last week that the parties “have to think about how to reconstruct the conventions. They’ve been drained of all their vitality.” If the networks are right to downsize their convention coverage, then perhaps they could invest the extra resources in other ways that would more successfully engage Americans with the important issues at stake in November.