As Republicans Meet: Mainstream Media Doze While Indy Media Shine
PHILADELPHIA -- According to the Philadelphia Weekly, one of the city's two "alternative" newspapers, the hip-hop kids and homeboys call their home town "the Illadelph." They must know something about what's "illing" the place that I don't.
"None of us are Republicans — even when it behooves us to be," the Weekly's Joey Sweeney warns those who have come to the City of Brotherly Love to GOP it up. His paper's cover shows a sanitation man sweeping up dung from a departing elephant, the headline shouting "GO HOME." This savvy columnist suggests that "Dubya," a.k.a. presidential candidate George W. Bush, will only win the state of Pennsylvania if he starts "spreading cash" to the block captains in the local political machine. (He certainly has enough of it: This son of a Bush has raised $90 million so far, so "sharing" it is not out of the question. CBS reports that 1 in 4 delegates are millionaires.)
Philly may be unhappy with the Republicans, but it's happy to take their money and welcome them with one policeman on every corner and another on every bicycle. The city has been planning this for three years, adding 4,000 new hotel rooms with the hospitality wagon now out for 35,000 visitors.
Among these visitors are a few thousand protesters here to raise hell, and thousands of journalists ostensibly ready to cover any and all action. The city even threw a posh party for the visiting press corps. Photographer Elwin Williams gushed to the Inky (the name locals have given The Philadelphia Inquirer), "I've covered the Emmys. I've covered the Oscars, I've covered Super Bowls. I've never gotten a warmer welcome in my whole life." (This invocation of comparable entertainment extravaganzas is not off the mark.)
In all, a small media army of 15,000 will be on hand to cover what The New York Times diplomatically calls an "exercise in political packaging." National Public Radio's Daniel Schorr denounces it as a "pseudo event," which he says he will not attend, while the Inky, the city's newspaper of record, admits delicately that the convention is "generally acknowledged as being past its prime in newsworthiness." It doesn't seem to matter! "And still they come."
This adds up to a lot of cheese steaks. The Wall Street Journal says this month's two political party rallies will cost $120 million to stage (compared with $14 million in 1976). "In other words, less happens, fewer people care, but more is spent."
I am not sure fewer people care. The parties simply don't want us to care. They don't want us to know too much, or to get too involved. By keeping the general public message simple and symbolic, they lay out broad propaganda themes aimed at already politically conscious Americans. This is the message echoed through mainstream media. Their internal media operations then tailor specific messages to different constituencies with a sophisticated — less public — email operation (one on one marketing) on which each party is spending millions. These "non-media" messages appeal to different regional, ethnic and economic interests, sometimes contradicting what the major media may be hyping.
Meanwhile, the largest "party" in America remains the disaffected majority which doesn't vote and is easily diverted by various "weapons of mass distraction" like goofy TV shows, sports and shopping. The other night, as I clicked the remote to find the "new" GOP, I saw an arena packed with people holding up posters and screaming for their favorites. But no, it wasn't the convention, it was just more endless Extreme Wrestling. I doubt that Laura Bush's homilies on education had much appeal for the viewers of cable's most-watched adult programming.
Keeping Media (And Citizens) Out
Not everyone is here to be on the inside — and not everyone can be. When I called the House and Senate press galleries, which have taken on the job of credentialing this media invasion, I was told I was too late to get a media seat. My application had to be in by February, which is a past lifetime to a fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants MediaChanneler like myself. But it may not have mattered, as I learned when I pressed the issue. It seems the Republicans have dramatically cut back on the number of press seats available inside the hall.
"We had 1,000 for the conventions in New York, 750 in San Diego and now only 350 allocated," one of the officials told me with some irritation. What this means is that the Republicans, who are planning a slick, on-time, "on message" TV sales pitch, are determined to limit the size and scope of the press corps. At least they admit it: They don't want any news that is not their news coming out, as they focus on what they call "message management" within their ranks.
They have designed an event not for those who are here, but for those watching at home. They are determined to keep the event "uneventful." In short, nothing happening in the hall is precisely the message they want people outside the hall to get.
Explains Haley Barbour, ex-head of the Republican Party: "I think the media confuses news on the one hand with important information on the other. I hope no news is committed but I think we will have a week of important information."
Run that by me again: "I hope no news is committed." Could this be because the Republicans are concealing the content of their ambitions in a form that is deliberately fuzzy-wuzzy and red, white and blue? The truth is that this convention is so tilted to the far right that the most conservative strategists don't want attention called to their stealthy, behind-the-scenes orchestration of the whole seamy affair. This has been confirmed by polls showing most delegates are far to the right of most Republicans (as well as most Americans). Says preacher Pat Robertson, "I'm delighted with everything." When Pat's delighted, people of a more progressive bent have genuine cause to be alarmed.
It wasn't always like this. In the old days of gavel-to-gavel coverage, there was time for analysis, hard-hitting interviews and even some investigative reporting. Not any more. "If voters try searching for serious coverage of this year's political jamborees, they'll be lucky to catch more than a few edited highlights," reports The Guardian's Felicity Spector. "The U.S. media has fallen deeply out of love with politics." But maybe that's because they are more in love with serving their corporate bottom line, rather than the public interest. The big journalists of course say that the conventions are less newsworthy, and hence deserve less coverage, but there's a self-serving self-interest in this. Remember: The TV networks have been eroding interest in news for years, knowing that they get higher ratings — and ad revenues — from entertainment shows.
Consider these statistics from Alliance for Better Campaigns as they appeared in Philly's City Paper.
Combined Total Convention Coverage of ABC, NBC and CBS, 1972-present
• 1972 189+ hours
• 1976 140+ hours
• 1980 100 hours
• 1984 72 hours
• 1988 69 hours
• 1996 29 hours
• 2000 25 hours (planned)
These numbers tell the real story of media marginalization in complicity with political parties that have become professional marketing organizations. This time around, the networks have pushed most coverage onto their cable properties and Internet sites. There is an "Internet Alley" for the dot.coms from whom most of the detailed coverage will come. All the big anchorpeople will be on hand, of course, even with their airtime so circumscribed.
It's painful to see this because as a youth, I got turned on to politics by watching political conventions. I started in the '50s with close friend Jeff Greenfield, glued to the tube as Eisenhower and Stevenson won their respective party nominations. Now Jeff is in the anchor booth for CNN, and I am critiquing him and his colleagues. And I am not alone. I heard Web wonder Matt Drudge on ABC radio last night go berserk in denouncing what he called "Time Warner's staged coverage of a staged event. ... It's unbelievable," he raged, "how they interrupt the coverage to go 'live' to the arrival of some limousine bringing a politician to a hotel. What crap! That's not reporting." Imagine! Drudge, once the poster boy for irresponsible online journalism, now lecturing the broadcast biggies for falling down on the job.
The Edge Report
Happily, I can report that political passion on the margins is robust and healthy, not "illing" at all. About 10,000 to 30,000 people turned out for UNITY 2000, a street party and multi-issue rally on Sunday, July 30. Perhaps the event did not live up to its billing as "the largest demonstration during a national political convention in the history of the United States," but it did attract media attention — especially on local newscasts, with 156 journalists of all stripes signing up at its media tent. According to Len Oboler, who ran their media operation, most of these journalists peppered him with just two questions: "How many people are here?" And, "When will there be violence?"
His answers were invariably the same: "We are not playing a numbers game but an 'energy game,' building a progressive coalition for the future." And, "Sorry, this event is peaceful, has permits and is nonviolent." The energy at the event, on the Parkway below the famous statue of Rocky, based on the movie that remade Philadelphia famous, was impressive if only because of the spirited presence of a new generation of activists, some already hardened by the recent protests in the streets of Seattle and Washington, D.C. Some wore black T-shirts, bandannas over their faces and carried flags of anarchism; others marched in formation shouting revolutionary slogans and even brandishing Mao's red book; while still others engaged in guerrilla theater, some in formal wear for a "Million Billionaire March" making the case for campaign finance reform. Every ideological tendency seemed to be on hand, from Zapatista supporters from Mexico to some Bible-thumpers warning that they all will burn in hell. And yes, judging by the spirit of confrontation that was starting to swell, there will be arrests and even violence in the week ahead. Some protesters are here to make war not peace and the police will be happy to accommodate them.
Across town, a better organized, if tamer "Shadow Convention" organized by rightie turned leftie Arianna Huffington had taken over an auditorium at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School with big names like John McCain and Jesse Jackson slated to speak. Green Party candidate Ralph Nader was not on the bill, but he had been campaigning in town a few days earlier.
I was told that the grassroots action factions have raised less money than the independent media activists who are here in impressive numbers to report, mostly on other activists. I visited an Independent Media Center (IMC) in downtown Philly, in what was once a community law office and then a quite legal massage center. Now it is being used to appeal to the mind, not the body. The place is packed with seasoned journalists, media workers in training, camera jockeys, radio interviewers and quite a sprinkling of sincere wannabes. Most are volunteers, primarily in their 20s. The IMC, and their Web sites are run collectively, on the principle that democracy is not what you say but what you do.
Along with Don Hazen of Alternet, I joined a discussion of how the Center's open access Web site had led to a story being carried alleging that the left had abandoned the cause of disabled people. "It is just a rant, inaccurate and without any facts," Don complained.
"Yeah, we know, but we are just getting the process in place and stuff like that won't happen again," one of the volunteers replied. They are experimenting with an editorial process that allows readers and editorial committee members to vote on a story's importance, and thereby decide how much prominence to give it.
In one corner are 70 loaned and donated computers powered by a T1 line that has been jerry-rigged on the roof with a microwave connection. In the back is a radio studio feeding Internet and some broadcast outlets. In another corner, a TV set was being constructed for daily broadcasts of Democracy Now, the Pacifica-distributed radio show hosted by Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez. Veteran TV producer/guru DeeDee Halleck, best known for alternative public access shows like Paper Tiger and others carried by the Deep Dish satellite network, is producing, along with veteran videographer Skip Blumberg. It was thrilling to watch it stream online as it was happening — maybe not as slick a presentation as the network offerings but happily complete with the integration of audio and video.
"It's exciting," said Brian Drolet of Free Speech TV, which has brought its own satellite truck to Philadelphia and based it in the alley behind the Center, after weeks of haggling for permits. "We have a real network here of a newspaper, radio shows, TV programs and streaming video/audio available on the Internet."
So, for the first time at a political convention, the mainstream media are facing competition from those who don't share their values. The top-down pros are being challenged by a bottom-up collective approach. The point of view is different. The issues they cover are worlds apart. The presentation is fresh, if uneven. But while they may now have the means of production, they still lack an adequate means of distribution. Getting a signal up to a satellite is the easy part; getting it downlinked and shown on TV outside of a handful of satellite systems with small audiences and public access outlets with even smaller ones is the big challenge. Especially when you can't afford a real marketing effort or advertising. Word of mouth is powerful — but not as powerful as they would like.
Nevertheless, the makings of a new media system are emerging within the bowels of the old. It is feisty, shaped by a techie generation, raised with computers, driven by anger, and spiced with advocacy — even if it is sometimes amateurish at the edges.
In "Illadelphia," it represents an oasis of hope and promise.