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    A blogger's view of the convention and the press

    Thursday, September 02, 2004

    "Turn to Fox News for Exclusive Coverage of the Republican National Convention." 

    Madison Square Garden, Aug. 2. First, there's the news that Fox beat all networks--not just its cable competitors--in the ratings race at the Republican convention.

    Then there's this story, from the newspaper The Hill:
    The love-in between Republican delegates and Fox News Channel continued on Tuesday night, as a group of delegates seated directly facing CNN’s broadcast booth began taunting the CNN cast and crew.

    “Watch Fox News” chanted the delegates and other convention-goers in Section 223, likely broadcasting the message to millions of homes tuned in to CNN
    Then there's the item I reported earlier this week: the deal CNN negotiated with the Democratic Party for a special broadcast platform on the arena floor.

    Then there's the decision by the major broadcast networks to devote only three hours over four nights to both conventions, due to declining news value and interest. David Westin, president of ABC News, wrote about it:
    If we broadcast extended convention coverage when most Americans would rather be watching something else, our audiences will flock to the alternative programming. If the conventions themselves were as interesting as they were in 1948 or 1956 -- or even 1968 -- then we wouldn't have this problem. But as we all know too well, they aren't. As much as we might like to coerce people into watching what we think to be good for them, we simply don't have that power.
    Then there's the long transformation of the conventions into message festivals that are also entertainment events.

    All of which leads me to think that by 2008 we may see something different emerge: The Republican and Democratic parties may negotiate deals with a single network to carry exclusive live coverage of the event-- as with the Academy Awards, or the Olympics.

    Obviously it makes the most sense for the Republicans to sell their convention to Fox exclusively, and for the Democrats to go with CNN, which led the ratings among cable channels for the Democratic convention in Boston.

    Why not? Ratings would be far higher for a single network. Promotion would be simpler. Cooperation between the party and the network carrier would suddenly be "okay," since both would want to put on the best event possible. The suits at ABC, NBC and CBS would be relieved not to have to answer questions about the meager number of hours they plan to broadcast. The party bosses would like dealing with a single partner, I think.

    The argument against it? "This is a news event and all broadcasters should have the right to cover it." But the answer to that is simple: anyone can cover the convention. Only one network has the right to televise it. This is exactly the arrangement at the Super Bowl or the Academy Awards-- thousands of journalists cover the event, but only one company has the right to broadcast it to Americans.

    In Boston, the word among insiders was: this is the last year of the four-night convention. Next time, 2008, we will be down to three nights-- and the standard will be one hour of live coverage a night from the broadcast networks. Maybe that will happen.

    But I think there are more radical changes afoot. The very premise of a "news event" is so strained it may collapse. By 2008, the conventions could be very different creatures because at bottom almost no one believes in the ritual as it stands.

    "Turn to Fox News for Exclusive Coverage of the Republican National Convention." Now doesn't that make more sense?

    Wednesday, September 01, 2004

    Independence From the Press Rocks the Gatekeeper's World 

    Madison Square Garden, Sep 1. It's more of an impression gathered, not something easily witnessed in the behavior of reporters and editors here at the Republican convention; but I think the political press has been stunned by the attack on John Kerry's military record, and by the events since August 5, when the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth began running their ads.

    That is the word I would use: stunned.

    Here and there it is spoken of outright: "I spotted the headline in the Sunday Tribune's first edition early Saturday afternoon," wrote Michael Miner in the Chicago Reader. He is referring to William Rood's first person account of Kerry's courageous actions as a Swift Boat commander, published Aug. 22. Rood, a Chicago Tribune editor, was a Swift Boat skipper himself. Miner, a journalist, recalls his reaction:
    "That's it," I thought, naively, after reading the first few paragraphs. "The issue's off the table."
    And he was stunned to discover it wasn't. The same feeling was there when Tom Oliphant of the Boston Globe, appearing Aug. 19 on the Newshour with Jim Lehrer, told John O'Neill, author of Unfit for Command and one of the veterans making the charges, "You haven't come within a country mile of meeting first-grade journalistic standards for accuracy." That's what "keeps this story in the tabloids," said Oliphant, but of course he was saying this not in the tabloids, but on the very respectable Newshour .
    I don't mean to say that I know exactly what happened that day. I believe that Mr. O'Neill, like anybody making a personal attack in politics, has to shoulder the burden of proof. It never leaves his shoulders until he satisfies it. And on this story, they haven't even gotten to first base.
    Note: They haven't even gotten to first base and yet the Swift Boat Veterans were the big story in the weeks before the convention. There was a revealing moment at the end of that Newshour exchange. John O'Neill urged viewers to check out the Swift Vets' website. Host Jim Lehrer, always mindful to make a show of balance, struggled for the name of a site rebutting the charges: "Is there a website that's comparable to that?"

    Yes there is, Oliphant replied. But instead of naming Media Matters he said: "it's called the daily press, which is the most difficult thing for these guys to deal with." But in fact it hasn't been difficult at all, and that is what's so stunning to Oliphant and company.

    "For the moment, this story has consumed the news cycle," wrote David Folkenflik in the Baltimore Sun on Aug. 25. "In an election where voters are eager for a sense of vision from each of the candidates, the swift-boat flap has drowned out discussion of current policy issues," said Linda Feldmann of the Christian Science Monitor.

    It's the daily press that's found the Swift Boat Veterans difficult to deal with-- not the other way around. Thus Alison Mitchell, deputy national editor for The New York Times, told Editor & Publisher. "I'm not sure that in an era of no-cable television we would even have looked into it." She sounded stunned in addition to being disdainful.

    "Against their will," wrote Jonathan Last of the Weekly Standard, "the best-funded and most prestigious journalists in America have been forced to cover a story they want no part of--or at the very least, they've been compelled to explain why they aren't covering it."

    Eric Bohlert writes in Salon today: "By the time the Washington Post, New York Times and Los Angeles Times did deploy reporters to knock down the Swift Boat Vets' rickety charges, they'd taken on a life of their own in the anti-Kerry netherworld of talk radio, right-wing bloggers and Fox News."

    "Knock down" suggests a world where political actors let charges fly, and journalists rule on them-- in or out of order. The general conclusion in the press (and Bohlert's view as well) is that the knock down ocurred in three news stories that appeared within days of each other:

    * Veterans Battle Over the Truth by Maria L. La Ganga and Stephen Braun, Los Angeles Times, Aug. 17.

    * Friendly Fire: The Birth of an Anti-Kerry Ad by Kate Zerkike and Jim Rutenberg in the New York Times, published August 20.

    * Swift Boat Accounts Incomplete by Michael Dobbs in the Washington Post August 21.

    Each of these stories is based on extensive reporting; and each throws serious doubt on some of the charges and motivations of Kerry's attackers. But the very idea of the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times as adjudicators has itself been knocked down.

    "There are too many places for people to get information," James O'Shea told Editor & Publisher. He's the managing editor of the Chicago Tribune, which joined in the knock down by publishing Rood's story of what he saw in Vietnam. (See PressThink about that one). "I don't think newspapers can be the gatekeepers anymore-- to say this is wrong and we will ignore it. Now we have to say this is wrong, and here is why."

    Jonathan Last put it this way: "The combination of talk radio, a publishing house, blogs, and Fox News has given conservatives a voice independent of the old media." Independence from the press is not an easy thing for the press to appreciate, but this is exactly what the Swift Boat Veterans have, I think, demonstrated.

    While they do benefit from news coverage of their campaign--and from lazy, he said/she said journalism--the Swift Vets are capable of telling their own story on their website, publishing their own book and selling it to lots of people without benefit of good reviews, finding their own allies in the blog world (some of whom have large audiences), raising their own money, and of course running their own ads aimed at voters. Yesterday, they even began negotiating with John Kerry: admit your crimes and we'll pull our ads, said the group in a letter to the candidate.

    There is nothing this group needs Tom Oliphant for, except perhaps as foil in TV interviews. John Podhoretz, columnist for the New York Post, made that point this week. "The democratization of news," to him a good thing, "isn't a good thing if you're a proud part of an Establishment whose authority is being eroded and whose control of the marketplace is being successfully challenged." I think he's mostly right about that. (See Jeff Jarvis on it.)

    Podhoretz describes how it worked in the period from August 5 to 23. "Because there was new information coming out every day, there was more and more to discuss on talk radio and cable news channels. And the story just wouldn't go away, because millions of people were interested in it." In fact, Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit, nerve center for the Swift Boat story online, reported record traffic during this stretch.

    Much of what Reynolds did was link to other anti-Kerry weblogs and information they dug up, connections they made, or inconsistencies they pointed out. It was therefore a group effort. And many of the bloggers involved--Power Line, Captain's Quarters, Hugh Hewitt, Roger L. Simon being a few--are credentialed by the Party to cover the RNC.

    But the excitement, as these players saw it, was not the sensational charges in the first ad-- that Kerry didn't deserve his medals and lied to get them. Rather, they were trying to show how often and how openly Kerry had lied or misstated the facts when at various times he talked about being in Cambodia on Christmas eve, 1968. (See this and this, for example.) They also pointed out how Kerry had changed his story. They reacted with gleeful derision when the campaign began to issue "clarifications" about Kerry in Cambodia.

    In a posting from Aug. 21, John Hinderaker of Power Line observed that "what powers the blogosphere" is a core audience "that is engaged, passionate, and above all, well-informed." But equally significant is the way participants in this world talk to each other and build on one another's efforts. In a word-- the links among them. Here's how Hinderaker, a lawyer, put it:
    A bunch of amateurs, no matter how smart and enthusiastic, could never outperform professional neurosurgeons... But what qualifications, exactly, does it take to be a journalist? What can they do that we can't? Nothing. Generally speaking, they don't know any more about primary data and raw sources of information than we do--often less... And we bloggers are not dependent on our own resources or those of a few amateurs. We can get information from tens of thousands of individuals, many of whom have exactly the knowledge that journalists could (but usually don't) expend great effort to track down--to take just one recent example, the passability of the Mekong River at the Vietnam/Cambodian border during the late 1960s.
    I can hear the chucking this sort of thing causes in professional newsrooms and J-schools. But the basic point Hinderaker makes is the same one Dan Gillmor, a journalist, develops at length in his new and essential book, We the Media. "My readers know more than I do," Gillmor is famous for saying. That's readers, in the plural. Bloggers are putting that insight to work because they aren't as threatened by it.

    The press can laugh at all these claims, and some will do that. But the political press should not be laughing. Reporters at the Republican Convention this week confront a changed race-- altered in their own minds by the Swift Boat Vets and the charges they have broadcast. Two weeks before the convention, the common perception was: very close, edge is to Kerry. As Andrew Sullivan wrote on Aug. 28, "I crunched the numbers and found that, from the polling so far, this race was John Kerry's to lose unless the dynamic of the election suddenly changed." Other journalists who knew the numbers held the same view.

    But that shifted in the final week of August, and on the day the convention opened political journalists had a gut feeling that the landscape was different-- even though "the story," as they call it, had been knocked down in the press and the people telling it stood "exposed for multiple lies and distortions," as William Greider wrote in The Nation.

    "They hate the Swift-boat story," Podhoretz wrote. "Hate it with a passion. Some of it's based in genuine conviction. Some of it's patently ideological. And some of it's based in fear."

    To me, it's quite proper for journalists to hate the campaign launched by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. About the merits of the charges, I hold the same view Sullivan holds: the original ad is a classic smear job-- ugly, brutal, demagogic, paranoid, cynical, dishonest in the extreme. And--a point that has not been stressed enough--it dishonors and degrades everyone who comes into contact with it. Take this episode, for example.

    "It's a smear because it mentions no facts," Sullivan writes. "It cannot therefore be rebutted." But it's more than that. The ad is also an example of what author Douglas Rushkoff calls a "media virus." The host is the news media, which in its weakness reacts to sensational charges and thereby aids in their spread.

    Kerry didn't deserve his medals because he lied to get them and other veterans know it. He's no hero. Nor is he an ordinary liar. He's a monster of deceit, and a master of concealment. It says a lot that George W. Bush will not criticize that ad, that people associated with Bush have helped the Swift Vets circulate it, and that tactics like this have been tried before against Bush's opponents. It says a lot, I think, when intelligent people write things like "the medals are a distraction," as Reynolds did. There he's trying to avoid the degradation, but it is not that simple.

    For those in the press who want to understand what's going on, I recommend the Aug. 24th blog post by Matt Wretchard at Belmont Club:
    The undercard in the Kerry vs Swiftvets bout is Mainstream Media vs. Kid Internet, two distinctly different fights, but both over information. The first is really the struggle over the way Vietnam will be remembered by posterity; whether its amanuensis will be John Kerry for the antiwar movement or those who felt betrayed by them. The victor in that struggle will get to inscribe the authoritative account of that mythical conflict in Southeast Asia: not in its events, but in its meaning. The fight will be as bitter as men for whom only memory remains can be bitter. But the undercard holds a fascination of its own. The reigning champion, the Mainstream Media, has been forced against all odds to accept the challenge of an upstart over the coverage of the Swiftvets controversy.
    To say, "I don't think newspapers can be the gatekeepers anymore," as James O'Shea did, is to recognize an historic shift in the politics of information. It's the sort of thing that can leave you stunned, angry, confused and depressed, if you have always thought of yourself as keeper of the gate. On the other hand, "My readers know more than I do" is a more hopeful statement. Maybe journalists who realize they are ex-gatekeepers will find their own way to Gillmor's wisdom.

    For purposes of contemplation, I leave you with this exchange, overheard on CNN, Aug. 20:
    JILL DOUGHERTY And they're also, apparently, according to the campaign -- will be trying to depict John Kerry as out of the mainstream. Kyra...
    KYRA PHILLIPS: Jill Dougherty live from Crawford, Texas, thanks so much. And so, will the swift boat veterans controversy sway your vote this November? Email us, email us your comments at We'll read them later in the show.
    FREDRICKA WHITFIELD: Well now, out to the West Coast. The lead detective who directed the search of Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch is scheduled to testify today as a pretrial hearing in that case resumes. For the latest, we turn to Miguel Marquez, who's live from Santa Maria, California. Miguel...

    Also see, on all these themes, Godzilla vs. the 'Blogosphere' by Glenn Reynolds, Wall Street Journal, Sep. 1.

    Alessandra Stanley in the New York Times, Aug. 24:
    There is the fog of war and then there is the fog of cable.

    Over the last few weeks, 24-hour news networks have done little to find out what John Kerry did in Vietnam, but they have provided a different kind of public service: their examination of his war record in Vietnam illustrates once again just how perfunctory and confusing cable news coverage can be. Facts, half-truths and passionately tendentious opinions get tumbled together on screen like laundry in an industrial dryer - without the softeners of fact-checking or reflection.

    Monday, August 30, 2004

    RNC Drops the Battleship-Style Stage; Goes Lighter, More Flexible 

    Madison Square Garden, Aug. 29: Credentials and work space had to be secured, so I missed most of the march. But I did see something that instantly moved me as it passed by on Seventh Avenue: four or five people balancing a big globe, with the continents and oceans of the earth painted on. There was imagination in that. It was a sign without specific message. There's the globe, it said. And we all live on it!

    Sometimes politics is about getting your people to turn out. You simply parade as many as you can, speaking freely and against Bush, past a hypothetical midpoint on 7th Avenue, which is Madison Square Garden's front door-- and the Republican Party's home for the week.

    After the march, I went to look at what the Republicans had done with the Garden. How the planners handled the space might, I thought, contain signals about the Party and even W., as the President is playfully called on some of the message boards in the arena.

    My last post was about the decision to create a separate stage for Bush--a theatre in the round--on the convention's final night, and what that particular move "said" politically.

    To me it was interesting that Bush would abandon the podium from which he was to be praised, and give his speech surrounded by delegates-- not by all the convention apparatus. It was an attempt, I thought, to recall his most iconic moment, with the bullhorn among the workers at ground zero on September 14, 2001.

    When you enter the arena this week and take in the space the Republicans have built, you notice something. The proportions are not the familar ones from when you attend a game or concert at Madison Square Garden. This is because the Republican changed them. They brought the floor of the arena up almost fifteen feet, creating a shelf on top of the bastketball court and enclosing it from above.

    Then they buried the bureaucracy, waiting areas and some of the equipment needed for running the stage. The "back stage" area moved underneath, to the new basement. Burying the bureacracy--a satisfying motion in itself--also reduced the footprint of the stage.

    "When Mr. Bush accepted the party's nomination in Philadelphia in 2000, he stepped up to a typical battleship-style stage, with multiple video screens and a sweep of stairs leading up to a lectern," wrote Michael Slackman in the New York Times. "But the Bush campaign team has had four years to think about their next convention, and from the beginning it signaled a desire to do something different."

    The stage at the Fleet Center was the old battleship-style. It meant to impress you with its size and the vistas it claimed, with three separate stations from which speakers could address the crowd and cameras. Commander Kerry was the only one allowed to speak from the center lecturn. It was big because it had room for many dozens of people (Democrats!) working "backstage," but of course out in public. They were visible in the darkened wings answering phones, and enaging in other forms of electronic busyness.

    That style had long since devolved into a visual cliche. We could say it was part of television's fascination with itself. This year, the Republicans have gone toward small and flexible, like the military is supposed to become under Bush.

    The stage is simpler, with a single microphone. It stands alone, with zero bureaucracy attached. It is a more modest setting for speakers than the Fleet Center's podium-- significantly so. The look goes toward spare, vaguely classical. On the other hand it is more intimate, less grandiose.

    This reflects the confidence that conventions planners have in their man's comfort with himself, one of Bush's clearer advantages.

    Raising the floor had another advantage. It allowed for installation of a thick, and remarkably soft, bright red carpet-- I mean red state red, the same red as this site and that one. Thus the floor of the arena seems luxurious and new, even a bit bouncy. And that's what delegates will tred over. I would say it's a very optimistic floor and the Fleet Center floor was not-- at all.

    Here the network sky boxes are further away, higher up than almost anywhere. In fact they are becoming outmoded. What you find in the Garden are many more camera positions and miniature broadcast points, as the networks try to fan out around the arena. CNN has the biggest presence in the sky overhead, followed by NBC and MSNBC combined, and Fox's two spaces. ABC and CBS are distinctly smaller operations. Al Jazeera has a skybox. Bush will also be speaking to them.

    But I think the point of today's events was: a whole lot of people have spoken to Bush, and to the country, by walking past the Garden in a mood of angry determination. They started the convention a day early, and now the GOP has four days to do its own thing.

    When I took PressThink to Boston and interviewed the CEO of the convention, Rod O'Connor, he said something that still intrigues me about the convention as political theatre:
    "On Thursday night when John Kerry stands up there and gives his speech, you know that's our Super Bowl, that's it, that's what this whole thing is about. And it's my job to make sure we get to that point, the air is clear and everything's focused on him that night."
    That phrase, "the air is clear" shows that communication is sometimes achieved in what you take away: distractions, for example. The Republicans have this approach in 2004. They are paring away to improve Bush's chances of coming through clearly. The stage is getting more modest, that the man will loom larger.

    No matter how clear the air is then, what the President says from the Garden Thursday will be a reply to what the demonstrators said to the Garden on Sunday afternoon. Now it's a conversation, much more than it would have been without the march. And maybe that, Jeff Jarvis, is why you have demonstrations.

    I plan to interview the CEO of the Republican Convention, William D. Harris, and find out more. Upates when I have them.

    Do see Jeff Jarvis, Demonstrations are so last century.
    Demonstrations aren't the way to get your message across anymore. Because now, you can own your own newspaper.

    Yes, you know I'm going to say that you can get your message across on a blog. But, of course, that goes only so far.

    You can also make a movie like F9/11 and get your message across -- and make a helluva lot of money as a bonus! F9/11 has not much more intellectual content than a demonstration full of hand-scrawled signs -- but it's more effective.

    And as media continues to blow apart, you will have more and more ways to get your message across.

    Sunday, August 29, 2004

    X-Factor: Street Demonstrations and their Effects 

    Some selected links on what is shaping up to be a big story: the protests happening around New York and how they may play into the convention, or at least its television coverage:

    Jeralyn Merritt, who writes the weblog Talk Left, in the Denver Post (Aug. 29):
    You can watch the delegates and speeches on TV, but that will not be the real story this time around - at least not for those who oppose George Bush.

    The real story will be in the streets. Instead of limited mainstream media coverage, which will portray the street action as a sideshow with a negative perspective, bloggers will take you there with them so you can see for yourself. We will bring you the highs, the ridiculous and the extreme. We will present the point of view of the random bystanders we come across, the voice of the dissidents, photos the main media won't display and a first-person account of the massive security efforts.

    Bloggers are not a substitute for the 5 o'clock news. We help complete the picture. We keep the media honest. If the media won't cover the real story, bloggers will.
    Chris Thompson in East Bay Express on the conservative media's interest in the protests (Aug. 25):
    According to assignment editor Sarah Courtney of the Fox News politics desk, her network plans to have at least three teams of producers, reporters, and cameramen bird-dogging the protests throughout the week. "We haven't solidified all the teams yet," she says, "but we have every intention of making the protests a big part of the convention coverage." An assistant to National Review editor Rich Lowry said the magazine will almost assuredly dedicate considerable space to the demo's crazier antics. Steve Gray, who works at the city desk for the New York Post, promises to do the same: "If something that's offbeat comes up, it'll definitely be covered." A spokesperson for the right-wing Washington Times claims that the paper sent up a reporter to cover the demonstrations two weeks ago. "If the protests get out of control, we'll beef it up," he added.
    Noah Shachtman in the Chicago Tribune highlights how instant text messaging and cell phones are putting protestors one step ahead of police (Aug. 28).
    In recent years, the most common of personal electronics--the mobile phone--has become a tool of choice for political organizers. And when activists by the thousands gather in New York City to protest at the Republican National Convention, which begins Monday, cell phones will get their biggest workout yet as activist instruments.

    Mobile-engaged masses don't just connect differently; they act differently too. Short-messaging system (SMS) alerts over cell phones have enabled demonstrators to shift tactics, deploy resources and respond to the police, just about instantly.

    "It allows us to react more quickly to a situation as it's happening. Text messaging lets everybody be on the same page, at the same second," said Rachael Perrotta, a 24-year-old organizer from Chicago's Albany Park neighborhood.

    Law enforcement officials concede they're having trouble keeping up with these fast-moving, cell-connected groups.

    "Now, they can actually coordinate tactics, create a feint. They'll start a demonstration in one place to draw the police, while their true objective is in another," said Charles "Sid" Heal, a crowd-control specialist and 29-year veteran of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

    "There's nothing we can do right now to counter them," Heal said. "They're in a digital age, and we're still in analog."
    In this online chat, the Washington Post's Robert Kaiser (associate editor) says he expects the protests to be the big story on Monday and Tuesday of convention week.

    The AP reports on TV networks and their plans for handling protests (Aug. 29): ""Our goal is to keep things in the proper perspective and not fall victim to staying with something just because it's a good picture and happening now," Princell Hair, executive vice president of CNN said. (via TV Newser.)

    NBC's David Shuster at the Hardball blog says he isn't worried (Aug. 25):
    There's been a lot of discussion among those of us in the media about pepper spray, gas masks, and possible confrontations between the demonstrators and police. And I'm sure there will be at least one clown will seek to get some attention by destroying something in front of a tv camera.

    But I'm willing to bet that 99 percent of the people who will be demonstrating in NY will not engage in property destruction of any kind. Most of these "demonstrators" are college kids from normal families who simply want to be part of something larger than their own self interest. If you talk with them, as we have, you may find a lot more in common with these kids than you might think. Most of them care deeply about their country, about politics, and about the values that america should or should not stand for. Their perspective and passion may be different from you and me (or not)... but their commitment to educating their fellow citizens and celebrating democracy is just as strong.
    Greg Mitchell, Editor & Publisher, Challenging a Media Myth: '68 Riots Didn't Doom Humphrey (Aug. 27): "As often the case in such distant matters, a little research shows that this is plain bunk. Humphrey actually gained in the polls immediately following the convention."

    Friday, August 27, 2004

    From a Small Circular Stage in a Sea of Thousands 

    The art and design of political conventions is advancing before our eyes. The old forms are breaking up. The stage is literally coming apart. New ideas are emerging in how to "carry" the convention to the rest of the nation-- and how to get people to watch.

    The latest news confirms it. They used to build a stage for the convention. And on that stage a raised platform, a dias, a microphone. This was an idea about authority, and clear sight lines. But some ideas are changing.

    "President Bush will give his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention next week from a small circular stage in a sea of thousands of delegates and other guests," wrote Michael Slackman in the New York Times today (Aug. 27.)

    In a sea of thousands is a leader who can step up just a little and yet be heard by all.

    "He is not just trapped by a stage," Mr. McKinnon said. "He doesn't have the usual comforts of a stage behind him. To me that says strength, that he is willing to stand out there alone." (That's Mark McKinnon speaking, Mr. Bush's chief media adviser.)

    The advisers are thinking different thoughts these days, and the Republicans have bolder ones by far. "Only yesterday did campaign aides disclose their plans," wrote Slackman, "which include a reconfiguration of the convention hall the night the president is in town."

    Old rules: the candidate enters the hall to climb the stage from which others have been cheering him. He joins a theatre in progress over four nights, as the culminating act.

    New rules: the candidate "acts" by stepping out from behind the podium, forsaking the protections of the stage, planting himself among his supporters and speaking to the nation from there-- a space newly claimed. (Flashback is to the President with the bullhorn at the Trade Center.)

    Symbolically, Bush is more at risk that way. Without protections. The President's appearence in the hall is still the culminating event , but it's a more orginal act. From Wednesday to Thursday night, the Garden will have an entirely new set built: a theater in the round for Bush.

    The best the Democrats could manage in Boston was Kerry the backslapper enters from the rear of the Fleet and works forward to the podium. (Flashback is to Clinton happy and confident at the State of the Union.) But Bush won't be taking the podium Thursday night. Instead, podium space re-arranges itself around his political intentions. And so he's not just speaking to us. He's coming closer to do it.

    Down from the stage and into the crowd was a move the Democrats considered. They almost built a round stage for the Fleet Center, but decided in the end it was too difficult. And too big a leap.

    "We wanted the president to be closer to people and surrounded by people," Mark McKinnon said. "It sort of reflected his strength and character as the man in the arena." You can see where the Democrats were going. The RNC actually got there.

    Four days prior to the announcement of Bush's leap into the crowd, CNN announced its own stylized move in this direction: Down from the sky box and into... the local diner. From an Aug. 23 press release:
    CNN will take over the Tick Tock Diner, located one block from Madison Square Garden on the corner of 34th Street and 8th Avenue, for the week of the Republican National Convention in New York, beginning Monday, Aug. 30.

    Outfitted with burgers, shakes, television monitors and wireless access, the CNN Convention Diner will provide an alternative location for delegates, newsmakers and members of the media to watch CNN broadcasts and mingle with CNN anchors.
    Bush's shift from the podium to the floor was a bid "to bring a special intimacy to the carefully scripted atmosphere of a political convention," the Times said. CNN is going for a similar effect-- convention-goers mingling with the anchors. The Diner's flashback is to a campaign (and journalism) set piece: the small town cafe in New Hampshire or Iowa, where the regulars gather for eggs and coffee.

    "As candidates campaign around the county and visit small towns, the diner experience has become a mainstay of national politics," said Princell Hair, executive vice president and general manager of CNN/U.S.

    "Crossfire" will be broadcast from the Diner, and correspondents will do stand up reports from there. Like Bush on Thursday night, CNN at its Tick Tock diner speaks differently to the nation-- not ex-cathedra, but surrounded by people. The device also plays on the cliche about New York, and every big city-- that it really is a small town.

    MSNBC, for its part, annouced this week that its convention headquarters will be outdoors-- in "historic Herald Square Park." (From their press release, Aug. 25th)
    Blocks from Madison Square Garden, Herald Square Park is one of the most famous pedestrian crossroads in New York City, providing convention participants as well as the general public the opportunity to participate in MSNBC's coverage, just as they did at the Democratic National Convention at Boston's Faneuil Hall.
    Yes, the opportunity to participate. A political campaign is supposed to be about that. Mingle with our anchors. Join in our coverage. And watch a leader emerge from a sea of supporters Thursday night.

    Dramatistically, the convention is changing. It's coming down from the sky box, out from the dias. No more from the mountaintop, some at the top are saying. No more from above. We should be talking with you, not at you. That's our message this year. We think it fits. We think it works.

    "None of us knows what this is going to turn into. By everyone's hope, it won't be Chicago 1968." 

    A general sense of foreboding has emerged among prominent political TV reporters who are bracing for the hottest political convention since 1968. --Newsday report, Aug. 26.
    A couple of reminders this week of just how politicized the territory has become around the major media. There's a rise in tensions as we get closer to the convention countdown in New York.

    On Tuesday (Aug. 24) TV Newser reported that the area around Fox News Headquarters in New York City had received concrete fortifications.
    Security concerns have led Rockefeller Center to position fixtures outside Fox News headquarters ahead of the GOP convention. "About 12 large round concrete fixtures doubling as oversized flower pots were positioned in front of the Fox News studios on 6th Avenue" recently, an e-mailer says. "These are obviously positioned to prevent any vehicles from the street to jump the sidewalk and get close to the building."
    Fox News is one of the sites around New York City where a prudent police force might expect trouble-- because of what it stands for, and in alignment with. Media sites are political sites, especially in Fox's case, which means there's a potential for violence but also for political expression.

    That's what the oversized flower pots in front of Fox News are saying: Harden the perimeter. We may see "activity" around the building.

    Meanwhile the city is expecting there to be protest all over, but no one knows what to expect when it comes to big marches and other street demonstrations. So imagination is free to operate. The New York Observer's Joe Hagan reports this week that for TV news organizations, the main concern is not how to cover all the possible protests around town. It's "inciting disruptive behavior by showing up with cameras."

    The people who run network television don't want to be "causing" street politics in New York City. They are willing to take stealth action to avoid it.
    "The fear is that the presence of that causes it," said David Bohrman, the executive producer of CNN's convention coverage. "That's really a fear. We're reluctant to pull our cameras out if there's a crowd of people. You don't want to galvanize a crowd by pointing a camera at them. You want to report on them, but you don't want to be the cause of them."

    Mr. Bohrman said that was one of the reasons that most national news organizations didn't mark their equipment with logos.

    "I think you'll find the networks and the cable networks, their cars won't be marked so they don't attract attention..."
    Fortifications in front of Fox. Unmarked cars for network news crews. And a strange kind of dialogue going on between protestors in their rumored descent on the city and TV execs trying to war game it: Could we possibly have "democracy is in the streets" again, where TV, confronted with news on two fronts, cross cuts from one to the other-- from the convention, to the streets?

    Does that even happen at conventions any more? Do the rules permit it? Didn't we outgrow that? Hagen reports on the confusion sown by not wanting to be a cause:
    It wasn't clear what would constitute a news event big enough to cut into a prime-time Republican speech-- especially President Bush's. And nobody was willing to hazard a guess, for fear of inadvertently making a recommendation to the protesters.
    Fear of vehicle attacks. Fear of causing street action. Fear of protestors who somehow figure you out better than you have figured on them. Fear of '68. Fear of having to make a decision. They're all related.

    "We need to think a little bit before we do that," says David Bohrman, in charge of CNN's convention coverage. "None of us knows what this is going to turn into. By everyone's hope, it won't be Chicago 1968."

    Greg Mitchell, Editor & Publisher, Challenging a Media Myth: '68 Riots Didn't Doom Humphrey. (Aug. 27, 2004)

    Thursday, August 26, 2004

    A New Crowd of Convention Bloggers Weighs In 

    The Wall Street Journal offers short profiles of the officially credentialled bloggers for the Republican National Convention. I found their lives and views worth reading about.

    As a group, these are people who think the mainstream media has failed in a serious way during this campaign season. I recommend, especially, a question the Journal asked of each RNC blogger: "What's the biggest gap in convention coverage by mainstream media in prior election years?" Bill Arodolino's answer: The "wakefulness gap." His blog is INDC Journal.

    Wall Street Journal, Meet the Bloggers, Part Two

    Here's CyberJournalist's list of the 37 credentialed bloggers for the DNC in Boston, and a list of 123 total weblogs at the conventon.

    Wednesday, August 25, 2004

    The Convention in Section View 

    When I was in Boston, at the Fleet Center, covering the last convention, I spent time in the mornings walking around the arena, before it filled with conventioneers. Looking at the space when it was empty made it easier to see how it worked when the red light was on. The more I studied the set-up --what they built at the Fleet Center to "hold" the convention--the clearer it got.

    Look at the convention in sectional view. Imagine taking a big knife and slicing The Fleet Center in two from the top. When you look at the view exposed the building is in cross section. And there are levels to the convention, a vertical order.

    Level One, at the bottom, is the convention floor, assigned to the delegates, who are seated by states. (It crawls with journalists too.)

    Level Two is the podium, set on an enormous and expensive stage, and... directly across the way, on the arena's opposte side, the big bank of television cameras, clustered for the head-on shot, centered at mid-court.

    Level Three: The print press have seats here, with bad views of the podium. Party VIP's have seats here, with good views. The Kerry Convention, trying to look even more like a giant television set, added seating directly behind the speaker to create a "studio audience." For the big speakers those seats were filled with cheering Democrats and an Oprah effect was created. Highly synthetic.

    Level Four has the Network Sky Boxes, which I wrote about in the introduction and welcome post.

    Studying this arrangement meant checking in at different times of day. Visit "the floor" during the evening when the convention is on, and no matter how close you get to the podium, in feet and inches, it always seems far away, the speaker somehow remote, the vibe traveling elsewhere, not at you. People on the floor may be listening to the podium, but the podium--and the convention program--is hardly ever listening to people on the floor.

    The podium, on Level Two, talks to others on Level Two-- the cameras across the way, the directors backstage. Negotiating the floor during the event's peak hours, I constantly had the sensation that I was walking under a power line, or a bridge, and that a busy highway ran over us as we moved about.

    In fact it was television and politics hooking up overhead, as the camera and the podium connected along sight lines worked out in advance. For the organizers, Level Two is where the convention happened for keeps. Two is the where the silent alchemy of politics went on, and where the money shots ("look, the party is united") were taken. On Two is where the event had to come into focus, or remain unfixed.

    On Level Two a kind of live current was available between "convention" and "nation." That was the thinking built into the Fleet Center. This current ran across the arena, over the heads of the people at floor level. It was something transacted between the podium and the camera, which talked sense to one another .

    The other Levels seem to know this. When you're a delegate you understand without being told that the convention is going on "above" you. Sitting in your section, you may try to pay attention to the program and its message. I did. But you soon get the sense that it's angled elsewhere, even though the speakers are, in the political fiction of the thing, addressing you and the people nearby.

    Of course, it wasn't always so. There was a time when the mysteries of politics were transacted right there on Level One. Between the podium and the delegates ran the live current. For they were "the nation," or as near as the party could come to representing itself that way.

    When television came along, it took the action up one level, and the people on the floor became a studio audience. The people at home were now the nation, looking in on what the Democrats or Republicans were up to. But who says that pattern--and its fictions--have to last? Now we have the Internet. It has information users more than it has an audience.

    I may try it, just to see what response I get. I may slip into an elevator at Madison Square Garden and catch the eye of someone who looks to be in charge: "Excuse me, but could you perhaps tell me... What floor is the convention on?"

    Jay Rosen

    Jay Rosen is a press critic and writer whose primary focus is the media's role in a democracy. He is blogging the GOP convention for Knight Ridder. He can be reached at

     Latest posts

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       •  A New Crowd of Convention Bloggers Weighs In
       •  The Convention in Section View
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