The Democratic and Republican conventions are not the same. Don’t pretend that they are.

In June—with Roy Cooper, the Democratic governor of North Carolina, refusing, due to the pandemic, to accede to President Trump’s demands for a business-as-usual Republican convention in Charlotte—Trump pulled the plug, and said he would instead accept his party’s nomination on the friendlier political turf of Jacksonville, Florida. Then, in July—as cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, surged in Florida—Trump scrapped that plan, too. (Talk about cancel culture.) With a month to go until the convention, its organizers, Politico’s Alex Isenstadt reports, were literally left staring at a blank slate. The Republicans’ plans remained murky right through this weekend. They still aren’t fully clear, though we do now know the convention’s speaker roster (the St. Louis gun couple, Nicholas Sandmann, Rudy Giuliani), the credentials of its producers (The Apprentice), and the planned location of Trump’s acceptance speech (the White House, despite laws that bar the use of federal property and employees for political ends). We also know that Trump wants more live action than the Democrats offered last week, and more of himself—he plans to speak in prime time every night.

The convention, which kicks off today, will be longer than the Democrats’ offering, running for two and a half hours each night, starting at 8.30pm Eastern. In the absence of much advance notice, the networks may find themselves winging elements of the convention broadcast, though it seems that TV bosses are planning, as much as possible, to replicate their coverage of the Democratic convention. MSNBC and CNN are set to give the Republicans extensive airtime; the major broadcast networks, by contrast, will jump in at 10pm each night, as they did both last week and in convention cycles past. Typically, the networks have limited their convention programming to an hour for commercial(s) reasons, but, according to the Daily Beast, their decision to keep things short this year may have come with an added editorial concern. Network executives reportedly told Democratic officials that giving their event more airtime would mean having to do likewise for the Republicans’ event—a perilous pledge for the networks, given the chaos of the Republicans’ convention planning and Trumpism in general.

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Some observers expressed skepticism at that pretext: the networks, the veteran anchor Dan Rather told the Beast, “never wanted to give the conventions very much time, because they can cram in more commercials with even deadwood content.” Still, the Trump factor has undoubtedly ignited a broader debate within the industry: do the Democratic and Republican conventions merit equal, unfiltered media treatment or not? (For previous iterations of this debate, see: Trump’s rare Oval Office addresses; Trump’s not-so-rare coronavirus briefings; the State of the Union.) Yesterday, Brian Stelter, CNN’s chief media correspondent, noted on air that the Democratic and Republican conventions exist in a “truth imbalance”—whereas the former (while high on partisan puffery) was mostly rooted in some kind of shared factual reality, the latter will probably feature a cascade of dangerous lies. Amanda Carpenter, a CNN contributor and columnist for The Bulwark, told Stelter that the Republican convention is shaping up to be a “major medical and political disinformation event,” and that the networks should treat it as such. 

Peter Hamby, of Snapchat and Vanity Fair, shared a different view with Stelter: if the networks handle the Republican convention differently to the Democratic one, he warned, pro-Trump partisans will cry foul. They surely will. But their protests aren’t a good reason to bestow equal treatment on conventions that manifestly are not equal—for the reasons Stelter outlined, and also because the Democrats do not currently command the apparatus of the federal executive, and the myriad responsibilities that go with it. If Trump does end up speaking at length every night, that, too, will mark a major difference with the Democrats’ convention—one which, some observers argued over the weekend, would be reason enough for the networks to cut away.

Treating things that are not the same as if they are the same in the name of partisan balance has been a recurring media error of the Trump era. The remedy is often clear cut: just report the truth, with as much context and as great a sense of proportion as you can muster. This imperative demands that when Trump lies on TV, networks correct him in real time, and/or yank him off air altogether. 

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The case of the conventions strikes me as a little more complicated than previous Trump-lies debates, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, conventions, as the political scientist Brendan Nyhan wrote for CJR in 2012, have a democratic value that (at least in theory) transcends our normal judgments of news value and perfect informational purity: a party presenting its best case for election on a fixed, quadrennial timetable can be instructive, even though it always amounts, to some extent, to propaganda. Secondly, as I wrote last week, the pacy, virtual convention format necessitated by the pandemic does not lend itself kindly to live fact-checking or punditry. When the networks tried to cut into the Democratic convention, they ended up talking over the top of it, which made for choppy, often-confusing television.

Ultimately, though, dangerous misinformation doesn’t care about such considerations: it’ll take root in any host body it can find. When Trump and his allies use this week’s Republican convention to lie about urgent matters of public health and election integrity—and it is a case of when—the networks’ first duty is to immediately correct the record. If they can’t find an elegant way of breaking into the programming, they should cut away entirely, and not fear doing so just because they didn’t treat the Democrats the same way. The theoretical purpose of partisan fairness norms is that they preserve the integrity of democratic choice; if we let bad actors use such norms to subvert democracy, then they literally become pointless. And that’s before we even get started on the wisdom of drinking bleach.

Below, more on the Republican convention and the election:


Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, repeatedly shot Jacob Blake, a Black man, as he climbed into a vehicle. Blake is in a serious condition in hospital; other details of the shooting are murky, but according to the Kenosha News, Blake was trying to break up a fight, and police shot him in front of his children. After protesters gathered, Kenosha police dispersed them with tear gas; online, a video of the shooting spread quickly, sparking outrage. (In May, CJR’s Alexandria Neason wrote that, when it comes to Black lives, “Twitter is not an adequate assignment editor.” As ever, that’s worth heeding.)
  • In recent weeks, adherents of the extremist conspiracy theory QAnon have marched in dozens of US cities under the cover of innocuous slogans like “Save the Children” and “Stop Child Trafficking.” As NBC’s Brandy Zadrozny and Ben Collins wrote on Friday, local news coverage of the marches has been “widespread and credulous, almost never mentioning the events’ QAnon connections”; a few outlets even “advertised lists of the events on their news websites.” Over the weekend, there were more marches, and some local TV stations fell for them again. The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Will Bunch has more.
  • American Media Inc., which owns the National Enquirer, isn’t long for this world—in October, it’ll merge into Accelerate360, a logistics and marketing firm. (Chatham Asset Management, a hedge fund, owns AMI and holds a large stake in Accelerate; it also owns McClatchy.) David Pecker, AMI’s Trump-pal chairman and CEO, will leave that role as part of the merger. The long-term future of the Enquirer remains unclear.
  • The Post’s Lateshia Beachum assesses how student papers are covering fears about the spread of COVID-19 as college campuses reopen. On Friday, the Observer, at Notre Dame, ran an editorial headlined, “Don’t make us write obituaries.” And The Diamondback, at the University of Maryland, wrote that “when the reopening accelerates the virus’s spread… know that this university’s administration is to blame.”
  • Recently, the Daily Collegian, at the University of Massachusetts, reported allegations of sexual misconduct against Alex Morse, a progressive gay mayor and Congressional candidate in the state. Subsequently, The Intercept revealed a plot by college Democrats—who were the source for the Collegian’s story—to smear Morse; now, the Times reports, Morse has been “vindicated” (and is rocking an Intercept tote bag).
  • The LA Times published a special package marking the 50th anniversary of the Chicano Moratorium, a movement protesting Mexican-American deaths in the Vietnam War. On August 29, 1970, sheriff’s deputies stormed a march in LA; three people died, including Ruben Salazar, a trailblazing LA Times reporter who was struck by a tear-gas projectile. The Mexican-American community hailed Salazar as a martyr, Daniel Hernandez writes.
  • For The Appeal, Elon Green explores the “enduring, pernicious whiteness” of true crime. “True crime is, relatively speaking, small… But the genre wields outsize cultural sway far beyond publishing, especially since the success of 2014’s Serial podcast,” Green writes. “So it matters a great deal that most true crime focuses on white police officers and detectives, white victims, and white prosecutors working to avenge them.”
  • Zach Lowe, of ESPN, reflects on the weirdness of this year’s NBA draft lottery, which was a stripped-back production thanks to the pandemic. Normally, a dozen media observers watch the draw, but this year, “I was the only media member in the drawing room,” Lowe writes. “If this turns out to be one the NBA finally rigged, I will go down in infamy as having failed to detect the conspiracy.”
  • And Thomas Gibbons-Neff, who served in Afghanistan with the US Marines, is now a New York Times correspondent in the country. He writes, of his new assignment: “Having been part of the poorly managed endeavor that was my war, leaving thousands of Afghans and Americans dead, I feel like it is one of the most important things I have been given the opportunity to do in my short life.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.