Read? Listen? Who has the time?

At political conventions, journalists get preliterate

TAMPA—Sitting in my motel room Thursday on the fringes of Tampa, maybe 20 miles and three weather systems away from the convention site, I am surrounded by enough newsprint to equip a Broadway revival of The Front Page. These are all the newspapers, glossy magazine convention specials and other journalistic handouts that I have meant to read since I arrived on Sunday. Later today, when I arrive at my convention workspace, I will also have my pick of all the major newspapers this side of Le Monde. And (sorry to end this paragraph on a downer) I undoubtedly will read none of them.

Relax. This isn’t another jeremiad about the death of newspapers. At my first convention as a fledgling reporter—Miami Beach in 1968—I was awed to discover that stacks of dailies like the Washington Evening Star and the Chicago Daily News were flown in each morning as a promotional gesture. And sadly I never got around to reading them either.

The television in my Tampa motel room has remained off for most of the week because of my personal version of Gresham’s Law: Bad TV commentary drives out good and original thought. In fact, the only time I turned on my set to check on a breaking story (whether the convention early Tuesday afternoon had just rammed through new rules for the 2016 campaign), Wolf Blitzer was interviewing one of the Romney sons.

During conventions, the same news blackout applies to the Web, even though in normal time it is my primary source for covering politics. As a responsible citizen, I have been clicking over to The New York Times home page several times a day to keep up with that mythical world Beyond the Convention. And sometimes I actually take the time to scan the headlines for stories that I intend to read. Someday. Even my carefully curated Twitter feed has become daunting. So many 140-character bursts, so little time. Logging back on after a brief noontime lunch today, I was horrified to discover that I had missed 226 vital, life-changing, paradigm-shifting tweets.

Maybe other political reporters swear off sleep for the duration, in order to keep up. But having covered conventions since the Portable Olivetti Era, I have a sense that my experience is typical. (Find me two other reporters and we have a certified trend). The hidden secret of journalism is that this week in Tampa, and next week in Charlotte, members of the political press corps are all functional illiterates. We are all like major politicians who depend on aides to brief them in their limos—except that we have neither aides nor limos.

Reporters at political conventions are members of a tribal society who communicate solely through an oral culture. We are akin to those indigenous peoples found on atolls in the Pacific Ocean and in the rain forest of Brazil, except that we carry BlackBerries and iPhones. If legitimate news somehow erupts at this convention (fat chance), we are most likely to hear about it because someone tells someone who tells someone about a tweet.

Covering a convention is detrimental to thought, let alone reflective reading. Just getting downtown from your hotel (probably at a secure remote location), through a security perimeter large enough to qualify for statehood, then to your seat in the press gallery or the workspace can easily eat up 90 minutes. Throw in the frenetic wandering around, convinced that you’re missing the Big Story, that I wrote about last week. Then, and this is true at virtually all news organizations, there are the rigorous professional demands of office politics, with top executives swooping into town for the festivities. Plus late-night drinks and—whoops!—I forgot actual reporting. Maybe they should have put a Time Deficit Clock over the podium at the Republican Convention.

Every night here I have been live-blogging for four hours for Yahoo! News, and I will repeat the ritual in Charlotte. This is also the period in which I do all my convention reading—panicked Google searches as I try to frame my instant response to what I just heard from the convention stage. It is the moment, as a working journalist, that I am particularly grateful to all the fact-checking operations out there. With, say, 90 seconds to craft a live-blog item, it is reassuring that I can check my memories of exactly how Mitt Romney is lying about Barack Obama’s welfare policies and backstop my recollections of Paul Ryan’s dubious arithmetic on Medicare.

Don’t get me wrong—great political journalism (much of it written before Tampa) has been published this week. Maybe someday I will get to read it.

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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. Tags: , ,