In defense of convention coverage

Thoughts from a veteran political reporter who still gets butterflies

For me, the malady known as Convention Anxiety is a quadrennial affliction that begins around March of every presidential election year.

The initial symptom is a cold sweat around four in the morning as I peer into the existential abyss to confront the irrational fear that I will not be sent to cover the conventions. But the deep, dark night of the soul persists, even after I obtain convention credentials and hotel rooms. Now a new specter haunts my pre-dawn restlessness—total panic that there will be no story worth covering once I get to the conventions.

I am writing these words with one eye on my suitcase and the other on the weather reports, as I get ready to join an estimated 15,000 of my journalistic colleagues in Tampa. Once there, I know that I will be constantly seized by the pit-of-the-stomach conviction that I have made the wrong decisions, that I am covering the wrong events, that the Big Story is somewhere else. My rational side, which does occasionally surface during conventions, understands that there probably will be no Big Story in Tampa or Charlotte. All we have is the all-important television show that will be seen by undecided voters in swing states and a cast of extras (reporters included) wandering around aimlessly backstage.

Only once did I display the courage of my convictions—and vote with my feet. During the 2004 Republican Convention in New York, I decided to boycott Madison Square Garden and instead fly to Ohio to interview wavering voters about what they had seen on their television screens. It was a laudable, if quixotic, project. But, in truth, I missed the camaraderie of the convention—the chance encounters with half-forgotten acquaintances, the drinks with political operatives and the background briefings from top campaign officials. In short, my love for voter interviews aside, I actually might have learned a trifle more had I stayed in New York.

The enduring truth is that reporters crave conventions for the same reason that George Babbitt left Zenith on the midnight train for the Realtors convention wearing a big celluloid button that read, “We zoom for Zenith.” On a certain level, political reporters are all Shriners under our collective veneer of cynicism. So especially in this era of parched newsroom budgets, there remains a small thrill, often well concealed, about getting on that plane to Tampa.

And, journalistically speaking, it is worth the trip. Okay, 21st century conventions are (warning: dangerous clich├ęs ahead) tightly scripted, carefully choreographed, and perfectly syncopated. But that doesn’t mean that convention reporting need be limited to parsing the prime-time speeches, rhapsodizing over Romney relatives, and over-reacting to the first whiff of Trumped up controversy. In fact, many good stories in Tampa (and Charlotte) have little to do with the contours of the Obama-Romney race.

What a convention offers, more than anything, is a cross-section of a political party. Not just the delegates and alternates, but also the fund-raisers, the political operatives, the ambitious local officials, and the volunteers. Every reporter should remember that at the 2000 Democratic convention in Los Angeles, an unknown Illinois state senator named Barack Obama was unable to come up with a floor pass and ended up watching the speeches on the Jumbotron outside the arena. In similar fashion, the 2020 GOP presidential nominee might well be wandering around Tampa without an entourage.

Almost everyone at a convention has an agenda that transcends an altruistic longing to see Obama or Romney successfully graduating from the Electoral College in November. It is always impressive how many politicians with ill-concealed future White House longings find a way of dropping by the Iowa and New Hampshire delegations at conventions. In Tampa, many of the panelists who will be earnestly discussing economic or foreign policy issues in half-empty hotel ballrooms are subtly jockeying for a sub-Cabinet or White House position in the Romney administration.

My point is to encourage anyone covering their first convention to be creative when it comes to defining what is news and what is worth their time to pursue. An obscure pollster handling a House race in Ohio, for example, may offer a more honest perspective about how the presidential race is playing in that swing state than a senior strategist on either the Romney or Obama payrolls. Like selling real estate (yes, it all comes back to George Babbitt), political reporting depends on relationships. And there is no place better than a convention to begin to forge these bonds of mutual trust.

At a time like this, I find myself reminiscing about another long-ago Florida GOP convention, my first as a reporter. Covering the 1968 Republicans in Miami Beach for The Michigan Daily, my college paper, I recall interviewing the youngest delegate, who was supporting perennial loser Harold Stassen who opposed the Vietnam War. I still recall with embarrassment the lede for my column the next morning, “As I walked down the hotel corridor and knocked on the door, I didn’t know what to expect.”

Forty-four years later, I pretty much do know what to expect. And that is why I’m heading to Tampa with a sense of curiosity, anticipation and, yes, a stubborn case of journalistic butterflies.

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Walter Shapiro just chronicled his ninth presidential campaign. He writes the “Character Sketch” political column for Yahoo News. Follow him on Twitter @WalterShapiroPD.