The Boys In The Bubble

The political conventions and the "media elite"

In yesterday’s New York Times, Mark Leibovich explored the proud tradition, so evidently on display during practically every speech delivered at the RNC last week, of politicians bemoaning, belittling, and otherwise bedeviling the media.

Ms. Palin capped off a succession of speakers — Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee — who took turns pummeling their favorite target, the news media, which in turn gave the news media the chance to talk about its favorite subject all week (the news media).

We have played this video game before. Indeed, the Republican tradition of media-bashing goes back decades, at least to the convention of 1964 when former President Dwight D. Eisenhower called out “sensation-seeking columnists and commentators,” and the Cow Palace in San Francisco burst into jeers and catcalls at the reporters there. The sentiment was immortalized in Richard Nixon’s vice president Spiro Agnew who memorably charged that many in the press corps were mere “nattering nabobs of negativism” — and for good measure — “an effete corps of impudent snobs.”

As far as politics goes, the strategy Leibovich describes—assassinating the character of the media—is generally as effective as it is transparent: Discredit the people framing the story about politics, and discredit anything negative they may say about you. They’re biased/petty/snobby/entitled. So nothing they say is reliable.

I’d like to defend the media against the accusations hurled at them. Generally speaking, those accusations are incredibly unfair. But after eight days spent in the twin whirligigs of the Pepsi and Xcel Energy Centers, it’s hard to find the words to do it. The biggest impression that remains in the residue of the whole thing—one that isn’t new, I realize, but worth reiterating regardless—is that of the utter disconnect between the highly fortified bubbles of the convention centers themselves and the areas immediately outside, and between those bubbles and the areas less immediately outside: those expansive and diverse areas often shorthanded as, you know, “the real world.”

Part of the former disconnect is logistical in nature. The security at both conventions—on overdrive in Denver, and full-on paranoid in St. Paul—was more than a (semi-)permeable membrane protecting the centers’ interior organelles. While walls keep things out, of course, they also keep things in. And the rabid security (credentials were checked in no fewer than five locations at each convention, and the TSA-like screening lines often took nearly an hour to move through) made osmosis nearly impossible. “I wanted to go out and cover the riots,” one reporter told me, as we walked through the Xcel Center, “but, if I did, I wouldn’t be able to get back in time for the speeches.”

As a partial result of this, the nucleus of the conventions’ media coverage was contained inside the conventions’ security-designated perimeters. Inside those walls, reporters, sequestered away from the madding crowds—sequestered away, in fact, from crowds of most kinds, save for those comprised of other reporters—analyzed speeches, described “the mood on the convention floors,” gathered sound bites from delegates, and otherwise Served Our Democracy. They relaxed from their labors at corporate-sponsored “media lounges,” defined areas in which the storied scribes of the first draft of history could: swig free beer; swig free booze; swig free smoothies; down free jalapeno poppers; down free chicken fingers; down free Swedish meatballs; down free chips and salsa; down free chips and guac; get free chair massages; get free hand massages; get free facials; get free yoga instruction; get free swag; inhale flavored, colored oxygen at a free oxygen bar; play games, for free, on a Wii; or some combination thereof.

A local reporter I met in St. Paul deemed the whole thing “masturbatory,” which is about as good a summation as I’ve heard of the whole thing. “Orgiastic,” as long as we’re going there, was a close runner-up, convention-summation-wise. The excess of it all was, both appropriately and frustratingly, excessive.

Which is not to say that there weren’t media members breaking The Bubble—or, at least, getting stories in spite of it—or that admirable work wasn’t done in covering the conventions, outside or inside their official confines. Donna Brazile may be the most famous journalist to find herself on the receiving end of the St. Paul police department’s pepper spray guns, but there were many more out on the streets, in Minnesota and in Colorado, documenting the protests and the happenings going on outside The Bubble. In true street-reporter style, those journalists were occasionally hassled, and sometimes arrested, for their troubles.

But those media—the ones who eschewed chair massages in favor of shoe leather—were a small percentage of the 15,000 who covered the conventions. And, besides, they aren’t the ones who drive the narratives that shape the presidential contests. They’re not the ones, therefore, who shape public perceptions of What the Media Are All About. They’re not the ones who feed the accusations Leibovich analyzed: that the media are, figuratively and literally, out of touch with the rest of the world.

The core complaint when it comes to elitism and those who endorse and/or exhibit it isn’t, as is sometimes claimed, its implicit celebration of excellence. Rather, it’s the even more implicit assumption that people are divisible in the first place—the assumption that certain people are, by whatever criterion you’d like to use, better than others. The nominating conventions tacitly endorse the notion of an elite media by their insistent stratification of the universe: In keeping the media confined to The Bubble, they suggest that The Bubble is, in fact, where the media belong. And in allowing themselves to be so confined in the first place, the media suggest that The Bubble isn’t just where they belong, but also where they want to be.

In the conversations I had with fellow journalists in both the Pepsi and Xcel Centers, the What Are We Really Doing Here question often came up. (Turns out, reporters at the conventions love to talk about why there are reporters at the conventions.) And the most common answer arrived at in those conversations was a combination of we’re-here-because-we’ve-always-come and we’re-here-because-everyone-else-is.

Which is, to say the least, unsatisfying. “Because I said so” rarely fulfills two-year-olds’ curiosity when it comes to the question of why we do things. Why should it fulfill journalists’?

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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.