Opinion

Jack Shafer

Political conventions are useful. Really!

By Jack Shafer
August 27, 2012

Nobody will think less of you if you grunt and punt on this week’s Republican National Convention. Go ahead and scan the newspaper and Web accounts of the event if you must, but feel free to watch something else on TV. The same advice goes for the companion production by the Democratic Party in Charlotte next week. But whatever you do, don’t bemoan the attendance of 15,000 reporters trampling one another in their frenzied attempts to get a slice of the thin story, or complain about the wasted money sending them there.

The conventions are much better at generating newsworthy moments than you might think, as reporter Richard Wolf points out in this morning’s edition of USA Today. A defeated Ronald Reagan wowed the 1976 convention with a six-minute stemwinder that commenced his victorious 1980 campaign. State Senator Barack Obama “became the star of the 2004 Democratic convention” with his speech. Bill Clinton flopped in 1988 with his 33-minute Michael Dukakis nomination. To that list of notable convention addresses one must add Sarah Palin’s televangelist tour de force at the Republicans 2008 show, which in retrospect marked her political high point.

One way to reject the pseudo-eventness of the conventions is to pout, as ABC News veteran Ted Koppel did in 1996 after setting up at the Republican National Convention in San Diego. (That convention also attracted 15,000 from the press corps.) Koppel, who had broadcast his Nightline program from every convention since 1980, cried uncle on the second night. “There was a time when the national political conventions were news events of such complexity that they required the presence of thousands of journalists,” Koppel said on the air. “But not this year.” So he loaded up his Nightline TelePrompTer and went home, complaining that the convention had turned into an infomercial. “Nothing surprising has happened; nothing surprising is anticipated,” he added.

Nice try, Ted. But you can’t cancel a show by ignoring it. What Koppel failed to acknowledge is just because there’s scant payoff during the heavily scripted convention week doesn’t mean that a payoff never comes. Again, Wolf explains how the conventions allow reporters, working in the shadows, to get to know some of the future presidential candidates while the lights shine on this year’s ticket. A notebook filled with quotations from Governor Chris Christie or Governor Andrew Cuomo might not be newsworthy now, but the reportorial investment in two political comers will likely pay future dividends. Political reporters benefit from meeting campaign operatives and state and county political chairmen in the flesh and snatching up their business cards and Twitter handles, and this is the place to collect the complete set. Convention veteran Walter Shapiro argues this point adamantly today in CJR, maintaining that “there is no place better than a convention to begin to forge these bonds of mutual trust.”

What’s true of the conventions is true of the primaries: Yes, they’re heavily scripted and predictable. Yes, the news-to-blather ratio is huge. Yes, there are too many reporters chasing too little “news.” But that’s like saying that during a gold rush there are too many prospectors chasing too little ore. With that many folks pursuing a rare good, the likelihood of a jackpot being won increases. Perhaps we should be worrying that 150,000 reporters haven’t been assigned to the conventions to work the event as cultural anthropologists investigating the power of social ritual. There’s something spiritual about the faithful assembling every four years to pick a would-be king who jousts with another would-be king for the crown. At least an anthropologist could determine with authority whether or not the surplus of ritual has diluted the event of its spiritual force. Maybe that’s the reason that politicians like Mike Murphy pine for a convention decided, as if by magic, in a smoke-filled room by a political college of cardinals.

There’s talk over at the New York Times‘s “Room for Debate” page today  from journalists and campaign operatives about cutting the conventions down to one or two days or eliminating them altogether, and replacing them with some simple prime-time event. While that would improve the late-summer vacation scheduling of pols and journos, truncation would interrupt the information flow between delegates, between delegates and reporters, and between the party and viewers. Waste, not economy, is the hallmark of all ritual displays. Typically, the convention congeals the watery mess left behind by competing candidates into a coherent message for the party faithful to serve to voters. The balloon-dropping, speech-making, uplifting-documentary-film screening convention is also supposed to mark the last act in the two-year (or longer!) campaign drama — the autumn push toward Election Day. Erase the political convention if you want to, but what replacement could similarly stimulate the party faithful toward battle? Child sacrifice?

The threat of Hurricane Isaac forced the Republicans to trim a day — or maybe more – from their Tampa convention, forcing the parties to imagine new ways to package rituals that date back to the 1830s. Surely there’s a reality-show scripter out there with ideas on how to freshen the form for modern tastes, one who would still give reporters, delegates, and others a chance to swap lies in a way that’s televisible. All I know is that the national political convention has more life left in it than Nightline, which Koppel left in 2005 in another pout: ABC is replacing it with Jimmy Kimmel’s show, while rescheduling the news program into a late-night graveyard where it will surely die long before the televised 2016 conventions commence.

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