BOSTON — Michael Moore is late, as usual. But the crowd gathered in Cambridge for the Take Back America rally, is, if not happy — it’s been more than an hour, after all — certainly willing to wait. Moore is one of the few legitimate celebrities at the convention, and it’s not just the delegates treating him as such: A phalanx of reporters, from big media and small, has followed Moore everywhere he’s gone in Boston. The press is giving him the attention they used to reserve for the left wing of the Democratic Party itself. Like Jesse Jackson at the 1988 convention, Moore represents to reporters the go-to voice of those to the left of the left.

“He has become such an uber-celebrity that everywhere he goes he’s surrounded by a huge gaggle of reporters. There are two or three-dozen reporters with notebooks open taking down every word he says,” says John Nichols, political writer for The Nation. “He is filling a role at this convention that a serious challenger would have filled in the past.”

And what Moore says sounds a lot like what The Nation puts in its editorials — only the ideas in the magazine’s editorials don’t usually get massaged into sound bites in The New York Times. Though he’s certainly a publicity hound, it’s not as though Moore’s been courting the press through flattery: He opened his Take Back America speech with an assault on the mainstream media, the “unspoken villains” of his film Fahrenheit 9/11. “You do us no service by hopping on a bandwagon, by being cheerleaders,” he told the 50 or so reporters in the first three rows, most of whom sat in their seats stonefaced as the crowd behind them broke into rapturous applause. (“Don’t take it personally,” he added.)

Moore, whose message stands in direct opposition to the Kerry campaign’s attempt to keep the Bush-bashing to a minimum this week, has filled the space that the carefully scripted civility has left open. The liberal wing of the party was supposed to be represented by Howard Dean, but so far he’s played the good soldier. Dean’s certainly been out there — this correspondent has now seen him five times in two and a half days — but he hasn’t been the fire and brimstone Dean that reporters have come to expect. (This was particularly true of his low-energy, not-terribly-notable speech on the convention floor). Dean is “on message” in a way Moore isn’t, which is why the press, sadomasochistic though it may be, can’t get enough of the fat man in the baseball cap who insults them at nearly every turn.

Still, Moore hasn’t yet been able to completely transcend his roots. “Moore is considered by the mainstream press more of a celebrity and rabble rouser than a person to be taken 100 percent seriously in terms of policy,” says Michael Tomasky, executive editor of the left-leaning American Prospect. “Having said that, obviously he gets a lot more attention and coverage than your average member of Congress, or even your average senator.”

Moore was supposed to fly to Crawford, Texas today for a public screening of his film near President Bush’s ranch, but he unexpectedly cancelled this morning to remain in Boston. The trip would have been one hell of a publicity stunt, but the filmmaker seems to have realized he has something greater here in Boston: the chance to build his reputation and get his ideas taken seriously by exploiting the media’s hunger for an off-message voice.

Brian Montopoli

If you'd like to get email from CJR writers and editors, add your email address to our newsletter roll and we'll be in touch.

Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.