Wednesday, June 30, 2004

On The Declining Influence of the Political Conventions

"Our next task is to study coming-to-be and passing-away. We are to distinguish the causes, and to state the definitions, of these processes considered in general-as changes predicable uniformly of all the things that come-to-be and pass-away by nature."
Aristotle, On Generation and Corruption

From Niccolo's Smile, by Professor Maurizio Viroli, "Machiavelli's Discorsi Sopra la Prima Deca Di Tiudo Livio, III, 6: it concerns Caterina Sforza Riario, a great beauty of her day and a woman Machiavelli thought of fondly, '(Some conspirators) killed Count Giordano, their lord, and took his wife and small children. Since they did not see how they could be secure if they did not become masters of the fortress, and the castellan were not willing to cede it to them, Madonna Caterina (so the Countess was called) promised the conspirators that if they let her enter it, she would deliver it over to them and they could keep the children with them as hostages. With this pledge they let her enter. As soon as she was within, she stood on the walls and berated them for the death of her husband and threatened them with every kind of revenge. And to show that she did not worry about her children, she showed them her genitals, saying she still had the means to make more of them.'"

As the television news division increasingly morphs into entertainment division (and anyone who reads this blog knows that I don't necessarily think that that is a bad thing), the political convention is becoming an endangered species of sorts. And that is unfortunate.

According to the policy wonk bible, The Hill, and it's intrepid reporter, Geoff Earle:

"The major TV networks are planning to cut coverage at the political conventions, ignoring major speeches early in the week.

"The Republican and Democratic parties hope to nudge the networks into more live coverage, but broadcasters have concluded that there will be little news to report."

Frankly, this comes as sad news for all involved. As a child I can still remember the Dukakis nominating convention, where Jesse Jackson and The Duke fought it out for a surprisingly long time. the Puerto Rico delegation abstained, hoping to get around antagonizing the useful Jackson, while another state gave Duke the Democratic Party nod. Then Duke came out, looking rather constipated, in sockless shoes to affect a preppy nonchalance; sitting with his wife, benevolently accepting the favor of the Party's nod. Such was my geeky but effervescently happy childhood, bathed in High Politics and pop culture, with dashes of an as yet unevolved sense of the ancient, that I can remember such arcana as the fact that The Duke wore no socks.

But, now that hallmark of our government, the party convention, is going the way of the Dodo, or at least, CSpan, which, in effect, means a significant drop off a) to those who do not have cable, and b) those who are simply not even aware that a CSpan exists, it is not on their narrow media-deprived radar screen:

"'We know we're going to cover the nomination and the [nominee's] speech,' said one network's spokeswoman, but 'we're not sure about the first two days.'

"Previously, networks covered each day of the convention."

That's right; every snooze inducing day, every ambitious backwater Governor's speech, all -- everything in prime time. This will be a momentous sea change, heralding the inevitable day when there is no such thing as a news division anymore, only an entertainment division, which, alas, would push the big stories -- the party conventions -- into the C-Span ghetto, and, in so doing, deprive the next generation of political geeks like me, the child being born now, a solid political education.

"Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and President Bush have already locked up their nominations, so the networks don't feel obliged to cover the four-day windup to their acceptance speeches.

"'They are very tightly choreographed events,' said the spokeswoman. 'There is virtually no news that is made at the conventions any more.'"

No hard news, correct, and tightly choreographed, also yes, but many, many great American moments arise from these conventions: Bill Clinton's longwinded speech at the '88 convention. It was so boring and overdone that when Clinton said, "In conclusion ..." the whole hall erupted in cheers. Who could have fucking predicted that this backwater Machiavel would come back, using the momentum of being a punchline, into the Presidency? Priceless.

Pat Buchanan's fire and brimstone speech, exposing the reptilian underbelly of the paleoconservative America First movement that emerged from the ashes of The Cold War. The speech that sunk the last WWII generation president. John F Kennedy Junior entered public life speaking at the Convention in Atlanta in '88, so young, so fresh faces, and now, alas, forever lost to the us, a possible future President.

"Sources say each networks will likely reduce coverage from four years ago, even though coverage in 2000 already was scaled back from historic levels. Networks could provide as little as an hour of live coverage on the penultimate nights (Wednesdays), with perhaps two hours for the Thursday finale.

"This is a significant challenge for candidates. Kerry must use the convention to define himself before a national audience, presenting his carefully packaged image as a veteran and a leader, and overcome characterizations in Bush's TV ads that he is a flip-flopper, observers say.

"Bush, whose approval ratings dropped to 48 percent in the latest Gallup poll, needs his convention to reestablish his credentials on terrorism, security, and the economy, and counteract any post-convention 'bounce' by Kerry. Harry Truman is the only president to win reelection despite a June approval rating below 50 percent.

"Democrats and Republicans will continue talks with the networks this week and plead for more coverage."

That's kind of sad, the idea of political candidates begging the network heads for coverage. But Geoff is right in looking at the strategic options that this historic event effects. The term "Convention Bounce" is a part of any political scientists working vocabulary, it is considered sine qua non of any effective Presidential election strategy. The loss of gavel to gavel election coverage will undercut the strength of any bounce. Trajectiories must be recalculated, on both sides:

"'We are gathering information, talking to the networks,' said Peggy Wilhide, communications director for the Democratic convention in Boston. 'The final decisions rest with them as to how much they will cover. We?re trying to make it as attractive as possible ...'"

"But Democrats are already turning elsewhere: 'We have done a lot of outreach to non-traditional [media] outside of the traditional big five,' said Wilhide.

"Black Entertainment Television will be broadcasting nightly from Boston's Fleet Center. The Spanish language Univision will have a correspondent there. MTV, Comedy Central and ESPN will also be producing convention shows.

"The cable political network C-SPAN plans gavel-to-gavel coverage from the convention floor, as it has in the past. The Fox News Channel, CNN and MSNBC, and Internet coverage can fill some of the void left by the withdrawing networks. The proliferation of media has given the networks an excuse to scale back coverage, observers add."

Perhaps the era of the dinosaur network is ending, and the politically astute viewer will have to be more nimble with his remote control finger to get the coverage that he or she needs to get the information to make the right choice come Election Day.

"Don Ritchie, associate Senate historian, said: 'The major networks ... make more money when they have comedies and Law and Order on than when they have politics on. That's the sad part of it.'"

Very, very sad indeed.


Unknown said...

True its 'sad', change is confusing and often met with resistance, but I'm a remote flipper and internet geekazoid that knows I can find content elsewhere in this technology laden society and won't miss network coverage that much. It's the networks loss and inability to meet the needs of their viewers or rather what few veiwers they have left and in that case most of those viewers sadly couldn't give a rats ass. God forbid the network interfere 'reality' based T.V. with the reality of the democratic process. =P

The Corsair said...

Thanks for your comments, Cupie. It makes me optimistic that the end of network coverage of the hallmark of our democracy will not have that bad an effect.