Forsooth! Ye Naysayers

Staying home and grumbling doesn’t help convention coverage

While Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne made his way across the convention floor to hear Sen. Ted Kennedy speak Monday night from the vantage of the Massachusetts delegation (“I still think of myself as a Massachusetts kid,” he wrote late that night), Slate’s Jack Shafer may have been rereading his Press Box column from mid-August entitled “Conventional Nonsense: Making the case for a press boycott of the national political conventions.” Or, as it might have been named: “Why I’m proud I’m not going to the 2008 conventions, even though I covered them in 2004.” Here’s a snippet:

…one way to improve coverage of the four-day, quadrennial conventions of Republicans and Democrats would be for the TV networks to assign sportscasters like Bob Costas, Joe Morgan, and John Madden instead of political journalists to report on the gatherings. They know how to make a game with a foregone conclusion seem entertaining.

Hey, I hear Jimmy Breslin is at the DNC, if that counts. So anyway, here’s Shafer’s main point of complaint:

Unless a brokered convention threatens to break out, these political gatherings tend to produce very little real news. Yet the networks, the newspapers, the magazines, and the Web sites continue to insist on sending battalions of reporters to sift for itsy specks of information.

The press head count of 15,000 is staggering and absolutely worth questioning. But the bulk of Shafer’s argument—that there’s no news, and therefore no need for reporters—sounds like croaking for croaking’s sake. (His sportscasters comment is the closest he gets to productive, arguing, as it does, for reporters who can cover the hyper-crafted conventions in a different way from the political reporters who are veterans of the campaign trail.)

Several other journalists have stated their reasons for or attitudes about staying home. Some drove the point like Shafer, while others just shrugged their shoulders before turning ‘em just slightly away from Denver’s Google-enhanced reportorial mosh pit. At Mother Jones, for example, the newly installed Kevin Drum, another non-attendee, wrote half-heartedly about Michelle Obama’s speech:

I’ll confess that I find it almost impossible to judge political speeches. My attention usually wanders a bit because I’ve heard all (or most) of it before, I’m hyper-aware that it’s all heavily staged and that every word is designed for a particular purpose, etc.

Limiting his own opinion to the thought that the speech was “a little artificial sounding,” he ended with a series of queries that seemed to question the news value of carefully prepared speeches, and ultimately tossed the final verdict back to his readers:

But everyone else seems to think it was a home run. Do they really know? Are they just saying that out of partisan loyalty? Are they saying it because everyone else is saying it? Or was it genuinely a home run? I dunno. I’m afraid I’m autistic on this particular wavelength. What did you all think?

From the ordinarily thoughtful and detail-driven Drum, it’s a bit puzzling to read what comes across as a lack of enthusiasm for analysis.

At TechPresident, a group blog that monitors the candidates’ use of the web, Micah Sifry took a more positive slant in a column on Sunday detailing what he thought was most interesting in non-attendance (its title, “Why I’m Not Going to Denver or Minneapolis,” is, like Shafer’s, rather self-explanatory):

I do think there’s something new and interesting developing around these big political events, a kind of community experience that coalesces and takes shape via the web when many of us are either at, or paying attention to, something important all at the same time. So when I say I’m interested in “watching the web watch the convention,” what I think I mean is I want to see how the world live web works during an event of this magnitude. And by NOT going and being in the center of the storm and instead watching and participating from a distance, I am betting that it may be easier to see some of the larger patterns at work.

Of course this means that there has to be a mess of people (the “battalions of reporters” whose descent into Denver Shafer bemoaned) covering the convention to allow for Sifry to do what he wants to do, but he acknowledged that fact high up by framing his post as an individual decision (“I’m not sure how or if I can add any value to, or interact with the convention”) rather than as a judgment against superfluous journalistic kowtowing.

Sifry’s point is most valid in its argument for interactivity among reporters. Case in point: Commentary’s Contentions blog and TNR’s The Stump demonstrated last night how interaction (and coordination) among bloggers can produce interesting, if not comprehensive, results for readers. (TNR’s Noam Scheiber and Michael Crowley, for instance, sat in different spots inside Pepsi Center, commenting on the speeches but also reacting to each other’s posts; Commentary’s bloggers didn’t appear to be on site, but supplied constant and complementary witticisms.)

So let’s return for a moment to Shafer’s column. Back in mid-August, he wrote: “If the political press corps were honest, they’d start every convention story with the finding that nothing important happened that day and that your attention is not needed.”

Alternatively, in the name of productivity, the press could cover the circus, including its own involvement in it—with an ear attuned to Sifry’s interactive big picture (via colleagues able to piece it together back at home) and, as some of the above-mentioned bloggers showed last night, with a ready sense of humor.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Jane Kim is a writer in New York.