WASHINGTON - August 4 - Every four years, journalists complain about the same thing: Political conventions are dull, scripted and almost entirely devoid of any "real news." Though the argument is illogical at best-- most events in a political campaign are "scripted," but journalists still find a way to cover them-- it probably explains why the networks decided to provide just three hours of prime-time coverage of the Democratic convention in Boston last week.
Reporters and pundits tend to look for appealing storylines that they can promote throughout their coverage, and the Democratic convention was no different. Much of the broadcast coverage was framed by the idea that the Democrats were primarily concerned with setting a "positive" tone-- that the party elite and John Kerry wanted to blunt any serious criticisms of George W. Bush and accentuate the positive aspects of the Kerry-Edwards ticket. The New York Times (7/26/04) claimed that "the word has gone out from Sen. John Kerry himself that speakers must accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative." The piece did not actually quote Kerry or anyone from his campaign saying this; in fact, the paper noted that one spokesperson explained that speakers' remarks "would be going through the same vetting process that conventions have used for decades."
Nonetheless, the idea was echoed throughout the media: Reporter John Roberts told CBS Evening News viewers on the same day as the Times piece that "the edict has gone down from Democratic leaders, for all of the speakers here, all of the celebrities and everyone else who will be attending, to keep the message positive. Don't get lost in the negative campaign. Don't get lost in the message about the Republicans as opposed to the message about the Democrats."
Despite the perennial complaints from media that conventions are too scripted, many in the press corps seemed most interested in policing the convention for anyone who might stray from this script. Their golden opportunity came when former presidential contender Al Sharpton spoke (7/28/04). The MSNBC pundits were none too thrilled about Sharpton before he took to the podium, deriding his effect on the entire primary process: Chris Matthews asserted that Sharpton "probably hurt this campaign. He was a humorist. Everything was a joke." Newsweek's Howard Fineman agreed that Sharpton's campaign "was not to be taken seriously, frankly." Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin asked the panelists to "think of the contrast between Jesse Jackson in '88.... or you think of Obama the other night, last night, where he's a future candidate." Goodwin didn't make clear why Sharpton could only be compared to other African Americans. Nor did Fineman, noting derisively that Sharpton "stayed first class wherever he went," explain where he thought Sharpton ought to have been staying on the campaign trail.
The response from the convention delegates to Sharpton's address was very enthusiastic, but MSNBC actually cut away from the speech in order to resume its panel discussion, where the pundits were having a markedly different reaction. Matthews pondered: "I have got to wonder tonight, Howard and Doris, if this is doing any good for the Democratic Party. They're trying to reach those middle 20 percent." Fineman echoed his consternation, saying he was "very surprised, given the way the Kerry campaign has tried to control and modulate this message here. They didn't need to do this tonight. African-American voters are going turn out in droves for John Kerry and John Edwards regardless. They will walk through walls for them.... He is the only guy-- he could actually turn off the black vote, yes." Goodwin concurred: "In fact, the yelling in the rally right now is like chalk on a board, a blackboard. It's grating. You can't bear to listen to it." Instead, MSNBC viewers were treated to more analysis on the order of this from Fineman: "I think, frankly, it's an insult. It's an insult, I think, as an outsider, to African-American voters that they're giving this guy as much time as they are."
Matthews finally summed up MSNBC's vision of public service: "We're doing a favor to the Democratic party right now. This is a partisan act. We've taken him off the air." The pundits shared a laugh, before Fineman added: "It's completely counterproductive to what the aim of tonight was, to introduce John Edwards as the spokesman of and tribune of rural people, moderate voters, you know, not necessarily African-Americans, who are already in the camp, already in the camp of the Democratic Party."
Interviewing Sharpton after he spoke, even NBC anchor Brian Williams appeared clueless about Sharpton's speech, referring to the "teleprompter that just sat there for what seemed like a half-hour while you did a riff on whatever you did a riff on." Has it really come down to reporters taking politicians to task for *not* just reading off a teleprompter?
Amplifying GOP Spin
Media obsession over the Democratic party's imagined drift to the left is another hardy perennial. Before the convention got underway, CNN's Jeff Greenfield had a novel suggestion for how the Democrats could inoculatethemselves: They could pay tribute to Ronald Reagan. Citing "a real appetite for a less polarized slash-and-burn kind of politics," Greenfield said the party (6/30/04) could "cheerfully acknowledge that they had real disagreements with Reagan while saluting his eloquence and some of his more liberal ideas" -- including his "pushing for democracy in Latin America," a region where the actual Reagan endorsed and supported dictatorships that killed tens of thousands of their citizens.
New York Times reporter R.W. Apple made the typical case against the party, its nominee and its host city (7/26/04): "By coming to Boston to anoint their presidential candidate, the Democrats are italicizing an uncomfortable reality: He comes from a city much of the country regards as the headquarters of the pointy-headed left." Apple added that Kerry "will have to fight this week against the impression that he is the liberal nominee of a liberal party meeting in the mecca of liberalism." Of course, those "impressions" of Kerry are often supplied by the media, which during the convention were giving ample space to Republicans to respond to the convention.
CNN seemed especially eager to feature immediate responses to Democratic speeches from not only Republican analysts, but from Bush-Cheney spokespeople. Following John Edwards' speech, CNN's Wolf Blitzer turned to Bush strategist Ralph Reed (7/28/04), who in rapid succession laid out a wholly deceptive case against Kerry: "He didn't talk about the fact that John Kerry has consistently over 19 years voted for higher taxes, deep cuts in intelligence and voted to cut or kill every major weapons system that's winning the war against terrorism." All of Reed's contentions are familiar, and have been thoroughly debunked (Extra!, 8/04; FAIR Media Advisory, 5/20/04). But Blitzer saw no need to challenge Reed's misrepresentations. While it's true that convention coverage should be more than just a succession of partisan speeches, real journalism requires that reporters evaluate the claims that are being heard by viewers-- not just follow partisan spin with partisan spin in the opposite direction.
But it wasn't just the guests who were putting such talking points front and center. As Blitzer himself put it (7/28/04), "One of the biggest problems that John Kerry has had is this Republican criticism that he flip-flops, that he votes one way, the next day, he votes another way. That is a serious criticism." Blitzer did not elaborate on what made that particular talking point "serious." Similarly, CNN's Judy Woodruff claimed (7/28/04) that the Bush-Cheney campaign "have produced reams of documents to back up votes that [Kerry] made in the United States Senate that they say show... he has not voted to support the kind of military spending that would create a strong America."
Actually, as a guest explained to Woodruff back in February (CNN, 2/25/04; see Extra!, 7-8/04), the documents the Republicans have produced focus on a single vote that Kerry cast back in 1991, presenting this vote against a Defense appropriations bill as a vote against "every major weapons system." Nevertheless, Woodruff continued to echo the Republican line five months later (7/26/04): "You've got the Republicans practically camped outside the FleetCenter saying that what's going on here is an extreme makeover, that John Kerry has the most liberal voting record in the Senate, that he's voted against defense votes one after another, even though this convention is talking about a strong America. Are the Democrats going to be able to get away with it?" Whether the GOP would "get away" with distorting Kerry's record was apparently not a concern. The public, meanwhile, might be most concerned with whether media feel they can "get away" with reciting partisan talking points instead of reporting.
Many pundits depicted the Democrats as weak on national security and fighting terrorism-- based more on imagery than on any specific policies they advocate. When John Edwards pledged to hunt down terrorists ("You cannot run. You cannot hide. We will destroy you"), NBC reporter Andrea Mitchell ridiculed his appearance (MSNBC, 7/28/04): "That's the one line in the speech that didn't sound authentic.... He didn't seem to have the stature. He didn't look the part. He's going to destroy Al Qaeda? I mean, John Edwards against Osama bin Laden?" Host Chris Matthews chimed in, "You thought maybe he was going to sue Al Qaeda." Mitchell summed up: "He's too pretty to say that."
It might be helpful to keep such "analysis" in mind the next time the media complain about political candidates who avoid discussing the serious issues facing the country.