Cattle Coverage

Covering party conventions is no job for vegetarians

It’s hard to sit through the convention coverage without seeing at least one reference to “red meat:”

“All right, let’s talk partisanship, hard partisanship. First up, red meat,” said Terry Moran, opening ABC’s Nightline.

McClatchy’s headline from Day Two of the Republican convention screamed: “Thompson, Lieberman attack Obama in red-meat speeches”.

According to veteran media linguist William Safire, “red meat rhetoric” is “ammunition you can feed your supporters to use or throw into the cage of a lion that was hungry.” Journalists seem convinced that political ammunition must be stockpiled, because this year, the lions could not be more hungry.

Even as John Kerry declared that “the Republicans have been wrong again and again and again,” and Joe Biden sneered at the “abysmal failure” of Bush-Cheney foreign policy, media analysts continued to bemoan the gutless character of Democratic oratory.

The media have tried to attribute such carnivorous appetites to the party base, advisors, and delegates. But in rhapsodizing about partisan hunger for ferocious rhetoric, journalists have revealed that it is they who desire the kind of drama that accompanies a lion feed.

“Man, are these delegates hungry,” said CNN’s Bill Schneider, applauding Hillary Clinton’s speech as “the closest thing to a red meat speech.”

Perhaps nowhere has this trope been more prevalent than MSNBC, where commentators have salivated together each night over the prospect of rarer meat:

EUGENE ROBINSON: I think meat gets a bit redder than this.
RACHEL MADDOW: Meat does get redder.
ROBINSON: It does get redder.
ROBINSON: This was kind of, you know, medium-rare, at best.
PAT BUCHANAN: And it gets a lot redder than this, I will tell you.
BUCHANAN: No, this was — this was lightly done, quite frankly….I didn’t see the real red meat.

After the 2004 presidential convention, Boston College librarian Ken Liss explained that the “red meat” metaphor was first popularized not as a way to describe political attacks fed to supporters, but as a way to describe controversies that publicity seekers fed to a hungry press.

Although the “red meat” meme has consistently blanketed campaign press coverage since the days of Eugene McCarthy, Liss’s survey of news databases showed that the phrase had never been used as frequently as it was during Kerry’s convention.

Liss attributed this sudden hunger for “raw meat” to Kerry’s “keep it positive” philosophy: “There’s no better way, it seems, to whet the media’s appetite for something tasty than to tell them it’s not going to be on the menu at all.”

Barack Obama’s avowed commitment to cordial politics seems to have inspired similar media bloodlust. On the second night of the Democratic convention MSNBC’s Chris Matthews whined, “They’re pulling their punches and I’m waiting…Maybe it ought to start so it begins to smell like a convention. Or am I pushing them?”

The short answer is: yes.

After years of being fed a steady diet of controversies from press-greedy politicians, the media are not completely at fault for believing this is the only way they can survive. But if politicians begin to change their feeding patterns, journalists are under no obligation to steer them back to the same old stuff. In their convention coverage, journalists appear convinced that conflicts drive ratings—as if the things people consume have no influence on what they crave.

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Sacha Evans is a writer in New York.