The Media Today

Information overload on night one of the Democrats’ virtual convention

August 18, 2020

In the run-up to the Democratic National Convention, which opened last night, fans of convention pomp mourned the likely shortcomings of this year’s unprecedented virtual format—a result, of course, of the coronavirus pandemic. We heard (repeatedly) that there’d be no balloon drop this year. Businesses in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the city that was set to host the convention, testified to losing their expected convention foot traffic. The total program—two hours per night, split across four nights—was set to be 16 hours shorter than the planned, in-person event. For reporters and pundits, the quadrennial rites of setting up a makeshift studio, grabbing delegates for interviews, and hobnobbing with politicos were suddenly off the table. The rituals that survived did so as simulacra. Delegates were to be filmed applauding speeches from their front rooms. Some of them donned their glitzy convention outfits—but only for a photoshoot in the Washington Post.

Not that everyone felt a sense of loss. Some seasoned political reporters saw the lack of a physical convention as an opportunity to focus less on pageantry and more on what matters, especially at this time of dovetailing national crises. NBC News anchor Lester Holt told Time that the virtual format would force the press to assess “the messages, the timing, the words as opposed to how the crowd reacts or those surprise moments in the crowd or the demonstrations. I would argue that we’re not going to have as many distractions that we might otherwise have.” Politico’s Eli Okun and John F. Harris wrote recently that conventions rarely offer unscripted drama, and instead have become “de facto journalist conventions—a chance for thousands of reporters and editors to socialize with each other and sources.” This year’s cancellation “raises sharp questions of what genuine value” conventions hold, Okun and Harris wrote. David Weigel, a campaign reporter at the Post, told them that he has more time to cover voting rights now that he doesn’t have to spend hours in airports and convention security lines.

ICYMI: When the news becomes religion

Last night’s programming—a slick, fast-moving package that shuffled through speeches, rousing films, and music videos; bridged figures as divergent as the democratic socialist Bernie Sanders and the Republican John Kasich; and culminated in a widely-lauded, pre-taped address from the former First Lady Michelle Obama—was frequently substantive. Voters outlined their present financial struggles. One, Kristin Urquiza, shared the pain of losing her father to COVID-19.

Not that the substance always made it onto TV. While CNN and MSNBC broadcast the full two hours and mostly refrained from cutting in, Fox News and the major broadcast networks showed only the second hour, and talked over portions of it. (They offered longer coverage via their streaming services.) Some of the network chatter was itself substantive—NBC, for instance, brought on Geoff Bennett to report on Trump’s attacks on the Postal Service and mail-in voting—but much of it was inane. After Kasich spoke, convention producers introduced longtime Republican voters who intend to break with Trump; rather than show their testimonials, CBS and ABC cut away, respectively, to the Trump allies Reince Priebus and Chris Christie, both of whom bashed Kasich. (“He’s a backstabber,” Christie said. “Biden’s gonna be getting calls from John Kasich, he’s gonna wanna change his phone number.”) Network anchors and pundits speculated as to what speakers might say just moments before the speakers appeared. While these interludes were going on, the convention feed continued to roll, on mute, in one corner of the screen—a hellish distraction that alternately had the air of an ad and a hostage video. At one point, NBC’s Garrett Haake recapped his conversations with voters in Milwaukee while unrelated voters opined, silently, to his right.

In the networks’ defense, the unprecedented format of this year’s convention, and the uncertainty around how it would be presented, forced them to make unenviable, real-time choices. The rat-a-tat rhythm of the Democrats’ virtual production did not contain natural break points for punditry. The alternative—letting things play out uninterrupted—was much smoother, but also meant handing primetime air to programming that, no matter how substantive it was, was ultimately an unfiltered infomercial for a political party. Physical conventions, of course, have long been carefully stage-managed, but reporters attending them have at least had the chance to scan the room for howls of dissent and other newsworthy flashpoints. As Heather Hendershot, a professor of film and media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote for the Post yesterday, “The 2020 conventions should be seen less as a divergence from the regular way of doing business than a culmination of that approach, in which total control has finally, theoretically, been achieved.”

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What we saw on many networks last night felt like an attempt to wrest back a measure of that control. The result, unfortunately, was an unwatchable exercise in difference-splitting. Ahead of the three remaining nights of the Democratic convention and the Republican effort next week, the networks should make a choice and stick with it. If they think that voters should get to hear each party’s best case from the party’s own mouth, they should air the convention programming without punditry. If they find that to be unacceptable, they should just air the news or something else. Trying to do both just leads to information overload. I’m going for a lie down.

Below, more on the convention and the campaign:

Other notable stories:

  • Last week, in-person classes recommenced at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; yesterday, with COVID-19 spreading on campus, the school scrapped that plan and pivoted to remote learning for undergraduates. The student paper, the Daily Tar Heel, published an editorial under the headline, “UNC has a clusterfuck on its hands.” It went viral online. McClatchy’s Hayley Fowler asked Paige Masten, the Tar Heel’s opinion editor, about the headline. “Personally, I think that the university’s utter disregard for the safety of students and workers is far more offensive than the word ‘fuck,’” Masten said.
  • For Poynter, Megan Janetsky, a journalist based in Colombia, outlines how COVID-19 has upended her work traveling around the region, as well as international coverage in general. “The coronavirus has created a devastating cocktail of economic turmoil and heightened risks” for foreign correspondents, Janetsky writes. “International reporting has been beleaguered for years… COVID-19 has only accelerated that deterioration.”
  • For CJR, Stephanie Russell-Kraft profiles Successful Pitches, a crowdsourced database, founded by the food writer Naomi Tomky, that aims to show freelancers how they can get published. “Successful Pitches is the latest in a growing movement to create a more transparent, equitable journalism industry,” Russell-Kraft writes. “It also comes at a time when furloughs and layoffs have pushed even more staffers into the freelance ranks.”
  • Yesterday, Spotlight PA and PA Post, a pair of nonprofit newsrooms covering state government in Pennsylvania, merged. The merged outlet will collaborate with news organizations statewide, and will launch a reporting initiative focused on the intersection of race, criminal justice, and policing in Pennsylvania. PennLive has more details.
  • Meredith Corporation, the former owner of Sports Illustrated, is suing Maven, the magazine’s current publisher. When Meredith sold SI last year, it agreed to continue providing administrative services including accounting and tech support; now, Meredith is alleging that Maven owes it more than $1 million in unpaid bills. The Des Moines Register has more.
  • As protests against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko continued yesterday, state TV staffers walked off the job. (In recent days, Lukashenko has attempted to use state TV to shore up his position; Michael Wasiura has more for n+1.) Alena Scharbinskaya, a reporter with Belsat TV, an independent broadcaster in Belarus, told the Committee to Protect Journalists that police detained her last week, and beat her so badly that she was hospitalized.
  • According to Human Rights Watch, authorities in Jordan have gagged, harassed, arrested, and beaten journalists covering protests against the closure of a teachers’ union in the country. Reporters on the ground told HRW that the recent crackdown continues a longer-term degradation of press freedom in Jordan.
  • Recently—after Australia outlined plans to make Facebook and Google pay news outlets for content—Google started steering users in the country to an open letter slamming the policy, which Google claims will make its services “dramatically worse” and hand media companies an “unfair advantage.” Government officials called the letter “misinformation.”
  • And the New Yorker cartoonist Barry Blitt reflected on his latest cover illustration, showing an opera singer performing to an audience of cardboard cutouts. “I’ve always kept a sketchbook close at hand and filled it with nonsense daily,” he said. “But it does feel like we’re living through a particularly target-rich environment.”

ICYMI: Successful Pitches shows freelancers the way

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.