Les Miserables

The Clinton speech coverage: in which Drama replaces Substance

DENVER - If there was going to be any Real News made during the Democratic convention, last night was supposed to deliver it.

Yep: The Hillary Factor! Capital T, capital H, capital F! What would she do? What would she say? What would her myopically rabid PUMA supporters do to shake things up, stir the pot, and generally add an air of uncertainty to the Pepsi Center’s otherwise highly choreographed proceedings?

The drama! The expectation! The sound! The fury!

But, alas: The only real drama last night was of the painstakingly-planned-for variety. Expectations were met, not thwarted. There was very little sound, save for Clinton’s speech, the applause that met it, and the strains of “American Girl” that introduced it. And the fury, if indeed it lingers on, was kept hidden from public view.

Last night, instead, was all about met expectations—nothing less and, certainly, nothing more. Clinton, who really had no other choice in the matter if she wants to maintain the good will of her party, gave the crowd—and the body that organized it—exactly what it had requested demanded of her: a full-throated, full-throttle endorsement of Barack Obama.

Which was great for the Democrats, to be sure (U-N-I-T-Y!), but not for the press. Last night’s events may have been big news for Dr. Dean et al, but they weren’t, in the end, Big News of a more general variety. While Clinton gave a fantastic speech—“tremendous,” The Washington Post called it, without a hint of irony—and impressed viewers with her eloquence and her apparent enthusiasm, her performance was ultimately more interesting than exciting. And more notable than newsworthy. Particularly in light of the knock-out, blow-out fight so many in the media were bracing and, really, hoping for.

Indeed, unless something unforeseen manages to slip the surly bonds of mirth over the next one-and-a-half days of DNCC-ing, last night marked a parting of ways between the press covering the convention and their hope that a big news story might come out of it.

Which, then, begs the question: how do you cover an event whose bark is so markedly bigger than its bite? How do you reconcile the Hype and the Reality? There’s the story itself, after all—the speech, the fact that U-N-I-T-Y may be in sight for the Democrats—but then, simmering in that story’s subtext, there are the expectations about What Might Happen during the speech. (Expectations, by the way, that the media have fostered. As Lester Feder has noted previously for CJR, and as Justin and Gabe Pressman reiterated earlier today, the Disaffected Hillary Voters story is one that’s been amplified by the media’s appetite for conflict and drama.) So, given its dimensions, and assuming you have only one A1 story with which to describe Clinton’s speech to your readers, how do you present them with the fullest, most accurate picture of it?

Here’s one way: melodrama. (Wait, that’s not in the spirit of the thing. Let me try again: Here’s one way! Melodrama!!! Okay, there, that’s better.) Take the paper of record, The New York Times, their own sense of Pepsi Center Drama perhaps getting the better of them, substituted drama for substance. The paper’s coverage filled the gaps left by last night’s events with…well, sap. “With her husband looking on tenderly and her supporters watching with tears in their eyes,” The New York Times wrote,

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton deferred her own dreams on Tuesday night and delivered an emphatic plea at the Democratic National Convention to unite behind her rival, Senator Barack Obama, no matter what ill will lingered.

Sheesh. One can’t help but picture Clinton-as-Cosette in all this, scrubbing the floors of the Pepsi Center, warbling “Castle on a Cloud,” and generally lamenting her dreams deferred. The description here drips with the pathos of self-sacrifice. (Who knew it’d be Clinton, not Obama, upon whom the press would impose the convention’s Messiah complex? And, for that matter, who knew Victor Hugo was covering the convention for the Times?)

Later in the Times’s narrative, our beleaguered heroine, along with her “tender” husband, gets a little, you know, “misty”:

Mr. Clinton became teary at several points during his wife’s speech, and even Mrs. Clinton, who has been so steady this week, seemed to grow misty a couple of times as she thanked her supporters profusely and recalled some of the Americans she met along the trail.

And then:

“It’s not just about politics,” she said, referring to the distinctive struggles women face as candidates. Her tone broke from its determined cadence and became, for a second, slower and almost hushed. “It’s really personal,” she said.

It’s exceedingly difficult to inject surprise into a situation in which there is little of it—and to frame as Big News something that, simply, is not. The Times puts up a valiant effort in this regard. (As far as pathos goes, the Times eclipses even Dana Milbank, whose entire job is to traffic in melodrama, and whose speech summary notes merely that Clinton “used the spotlight to play the loyal Democratic soldier.”)

But it doesn’t follow that the effort is commendable. Rather, the Hugo-esque tale of Clinton’s speech smacks of desperation: it’s trying to create hard news out of a story that is, more than anything else, about hype. And it’s trying to instill surprise in speech whose content, great as it was, surprised no one.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.