No news at the conventions?

Like the ceremonial first pitch at a baseball game, the lament that there’s no news at a political convention officially kicks off the convention coverage season.

Jack Shafer, writing in Slate, has tossed the first pitch.

A still better way to improve convention coverage would be to withdraw all reporters and force the curious to rely on a C-SPAN feed: Unless a brokered convention threatens to break out, these political gatherings tend to produce very little real news. Yet the networks, the newspapers, the magazines, and the Web sites continue to insist on sending battalions of reporters to sift for itsy specks of information. According to Forbes, 15,000 pressies are expected to attend each of the conventions. Slate, I’m embarrassed to admit, is sending a team of eight to Denver and six to St. Paul. Attention! Don Graham! We’re spending your cash like it’s Zimbabwean bank notes!

Shafer is correct, at least to the extent that far too many mainstream journalists — and even more in the blogosphere — believe that convention coverage involves sitting in a darkened hall somewhere and waiting for someone to deliver a tinkle of news. But why would they? It’s a rehearsed infommercial, and this isn’t 1968.

So what’s a reporter to do? Leave. Look for a better location to learn the real stories behind the script from which the Dems and Republicans want the media to read. Eventually, they reveal their true selves and deliver a far better story.

I’ve used this story before, but Shafer hasn’t heard it, obviously. It’s Boston 2004, the Democrats have trotted out the image campaign to make John Kerry a war hero. The former Fleet Center was bedecked in pictures of Kerry in Vietnam, all intended to provide some salve to the wounds inflicted by the Swift Boat Veterans.

The message: Democrats are patriotic, too. It was a carefully crafted message swallowed hook, line, and sinker by the major media. But on one morning, after a late-night convention session, an event was scheduled on Bunker Hill — a salute to veterans. Most reporters didn’t go, figuring there was no news to be had. That, and it was a mile away from Fleet Center.

They were wrong.

Thousands of Democratic delegates stayed away from the event. Had reporters spent more time looking for these angles instead of lamenting the lack of news, perhaps more than one news outlet would’ve told you the story of the convention that was reluctant to “salute the vets.”

Fast-forward to New York City weeks later. The Republicans draped themselves in 9-11. Widows speak to a hushed convention. “We will not forget,” becomes the rallying cry.

A day later, Minnesota delegates to that convention refuse to take the time to talk with another group of widows and survivors — the ones whose loved ones’ remains are buried in a Staten Island garbage dump; the ones who can’t get sympathy from either the Republican mayor or the Republican governor of New York. As they’re touring the site, I tell the delegates about the group of families. They return to their buses instead.

Here’s the slideshow I put together at the time (Sorry it’s in RealAudio format, it was 2004.)

In San Diego in 1996, a “Faith and Freedom” rally became a metaphor for the party as a whole. The far-right evangelicals were allowed in; the moderates stayed home.

In Boston, we started a dialog on whether Catholic Democrats have an obligation to their Church and faith that supersedes that to their constituents? That didn’t appear on any agenda.

And in New York, Laura McCallum was one of the first people to analyze the possibility of a national role for Gov. Tim Pawlenty. That was four years ago, and people going into that convention forget that it was Sen. Norm Coleman, not Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who was considered a rising star of the party. Pawlenty got the love tap from the head of the Club for Growth, the ultra-conservative kingmakers.

By looking for news, MPR did an outstanding job finding the stories, and we’re poised to provide even more over the next few weeks.

We’re obviously not the only ones looking — and finding — these stories. And, sure, it’s unclear whether we’ll find their equals in Denver or St. Paul. But if we don’t, it will only be because we didn’t look hard enough.

It’s our job to ignore the infommercial. But Shafer’s suggestion — staying home — isn’t the way to do it.

Update 12:13 Media lecturer Jeff Jarvis gets his licks in, too. But remember, that’s a journalism “expert” advocating journalists stay home and just steal other people’s work. If you haven’t looked for the news, how do you know it’s not there?

  • “That was four years ago, and people going into that convention forget that it was Sen. Norm Coleman, not Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who was considered a rising star of the party. Pawlenty got the love tap from the head of the Club for Growth, the ultra-conservative kingmakers.”

    Disagree. If Norm Coleman was the “rising star” no one would have switched Pawlenty and Coleman in the Senate run. Sure, we likely have two candidates now running who are both Senators, so one of them likely has to win, but before this, no one thought senators could win because of their voting records being held against them. The party was trying to keep Pawlenty clean so they could run him up ticket some day. He was always the star.

  • Steal? No. I say they should link to journalism at its source, which is a means to help support that journalism — if it’s any good and not the same commodified, packaged, predictable, spun, flacked, pap that usually comes out of these events.

    We disagree and that’s fine. But don’t accuse me of saying something I didn’t say. That’s not very journalistic, now, is it? Here and in my comments you get so nasty you sound like, oh, I don’t know, a blogger?

  • Bob Collins

    A shot at bloggers here. A shot at people going to conventions on your site. And in between, no tackling of the issue. That’s too bad. So I’ll ask again: “if you don’t go looking for news, how do you know it’s not there?”

    What you left out in your summation of your advice wasn’t the word “link” it was the word “summarize.” In fact, this is what you said.

    “I’ll use the power of the internet ** to find and summarize ** the best coverage there is. I’ll do what I do best and just link to the rest.”

    That’s a tad different than what you characterized in your comment and is, as described, the stealing of someone else’s work. I’m fine with the “link,” part of your suggestions. But the “summarize” part means you’re now messing — and using — the very content that you earlier claimed couldn’t possibly exist. That’s someone doing your work for you and THAT is lazy journalism.

    On the one hand you say organizations (presumably including this one) who are making a commitment to providing coverage are “irresponsible,” but on the other hand you’re saying those who don’t make the commitment should link to the best coverage of those who do. You intimate that THAT is the responsible thing to do.

    By even offering that as a suggestion, you’re acknowledging that, indeed, it IS possible to do good journalism at a convention (and you concede that point in the last line of your comment). And yet at the same time you throw in the journalistic towel, suggesting the proper role of a journalist is not to even try.

    Got that? On one hand you say there CAN be quality journalism. And on the other hand you say there CAN’T be.

    If I’m nasty — and I am — it’s only because I’m tired of old journalists passing on the tried and true ways to run themselves out of a job, and then wondering what happened? I’m nasty because this stuff matters. People deserve the very best effort of journalists and when the associate professor of City University says the responsible journalists are the ones who’ll probably say “we’re not going to go to Denver or St. Paul and look for news,” well, bully for all of you, but don’t expect me to cry a river the next time a newsroom shuts down, having once armed itself with such guidance.

    There are many things wrong with journalism, Jeff, but not being lazy enough isn’t one of them.

    I expected something more constructive from you on this issue, Jeff. Don’t disappoint me, again. There isn’t enough time left for either of us.

  • Oh, this is going to get good. Who has the popcorn?

  • I’ll bring popcorn if you bring the Bushmills. 🙂

    I’ll put on my DeRusha hat and say “You’re both right.”

    Yes there are good stories to be had, if you look hard, as Bob has done and The UpTake hopes to do.

    Are there enough good stories to fill – what – 168 hours of coverage? No, I don’t think so. It has to be the most bloated, overhyped media event in existence.

  • Bob Collins

    But the only people who have to fill 168 hours, Chuck, are the cable outfits.

    For the average journalist (and I’m nothing if not average), a goal of one good story a day isn’t that hard. News orgs and journalists in general don’t have to scale their coverage to the length of the event. But what Jarvis is suggesting is that there be no effort at coverage at all.

    One of the things that concerns me about the retrenchment of the editors who Jarvis holds in such high esteem — the ones who’ll stand up and proudly say ‘we’re not going’ — is that they always fall back on this “we’ll do what we do best” mantra.

    Increasingly, I think they’re having a difficult problem defining what exactly that is. If they aren’t going to go, then what ARE they going to do with those same resources? More features on popular ringtones?

    We’re seeing the kind of effort locally, in fact, that Jarvis is asking for. Pat Kessler, arguably the best political reporter on TV in these parts, from what I understand is not going to Denver. CBS has decided that locals will not go.

    I don’t see a lot in Kessler’s background that suggests he wouldn’t have come up with at least one good story while he was there.

    Hey, a lot of news organizations here decided not to send anyone to Beijing. I wonder if last Saturday afternoon they still thought there was no news worth covering.

    The lazy journalists, in my opinion, go out of their way to find reasons not to cover things, presupposing what the story is before it happens and deciding it’s not worth covering.

    I agree with him, of course, to a degree. There won’t be a single story worth covering that comes from the podium at either convention.

    but there’s always the hookers to talk to. (g)

    I’m willing to bet — no guarantee — that The Uptake will come up with at least 4 things that Jeff Jarvis will have to grudgingly admit, was pretty darned good. Even worse, I’ll probably have to admit it, too. (g)

  • We shall see, Bob Collins. We shall see. 🙂