Sky Box by Jay Rosen
Monday, August 30, 2004
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.
Sunday, August 29, 2004
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.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.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.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
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.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.
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."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
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
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?"
Tuesday, August 24, 2004
Welcome. This is my convention blog. During the Republican National Convention, I will be a contributing writer for Knight Ridder's Washington bureau, credentialed to cover the event for them, working out of their space in the Post Office building, across 8th Avenue from Madison Square Garden.
Sky Box will be my forum. There's a team of Knight Ridder journalists who are continuing a weblog experiment they began last month in Boston. Very soon we'll have a special page where you can find all the K R people who are blogging the RNC, and I will link to it.
I decided to call this page Sky Box because I see the network sky boxes with their blazing logos--NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, MSNBC, PBS--as part of the iconography of a political convention. A key part.
But "reading" what this image says has gotten harder and harder, as the big broadcast networks have shrunk their coverage to three hours, while the cable channels go end-to-end, and yet talk over the event for most of their time on air. What happens inside the sky boxes, where producers make TV of the convention, is still important. And for Americans who are viewers of political television, the vantage point of the sky box is totally familiar.
Yet we might never think about it as a "position" of its own.
We're used to watching Brit Hume of Fox or Judy Woodruff of CNN talk to us about politics, while behind them is a window on the convention hall itself-- a frame. The sensation is of inhabiting a scenic overlook. Intellectually, it's a position that promotes analysis, a step back, the broad overview, the look beyond. Televisually, it's a command post for the correspondents who fan out below you. Psychologically, it's about the power of being "above" the action--above politics--with that commanding view. Who owns these boxes when the convention leaves town? Big shots!
So the sky box is supposed to say Big Media and all the glamour of Big Media is supposed to come through the frame. When you're out on the floor of the convention, and your eye scans the arena, the TV sky boxes hover overhead. ABC News. CNN. MSNBC. Fox. These bright brand names in news form an interpretive ring around the action.
You can sometimes look up and see the silhouette of a known newscaster, and you realize they're on the air in that box, reporting on the convention by ignoring what's happening at it now, where you are--near the podium, on "the floor." And it's at these moments that a reporter might ask himself: where does a political convention actually "happen," most of the time? If I want to get closer to it, where do I go?
One answer is: go to the sky boxes where the hook up with the big audience is being made. There you join the Mississippi of attention streams-- the TV audience. Go there to find the convention being shaped into an event.
In 2004, the view from the Network boxes doesn't have the significance it once did. During the era when conventions were re-made into television-friendly events, a lot of political power was "pulled" upward. It got deposited in the hands of a relative few: network producers and the people they put on the air-- the anchormen, their correspondents, hired experts and guests. Now a lot of that power is being re-distributed downward as the conventions change into party "message-fests" that go out to Americans through many different devices, which is why 12,000 to 15,000 media people show up.
The best symbol of this shift was the big surprise CNN sprung on its competitors at the Democratic National Convention in Boston: a small broadcasting platform (a studio, in effect) right on the floor of the Fleet Center. In a sense this meant abandoning the pretense of the sky box: that its cosmic "overview" was the right view. The news is brought down to earth, put into the mix, in the shift from one set to another-- sky box to floor. (Of course, the network used both locations in Boston, and drew on both ideas.)
The sky boxes still matter, they're still icons, but underneath them and all around the hall, other ways of connecting Americans to the convention are showing up. This blog is one. I told you why I'm calling it Sky Box. But I haven't told you what I plan to do in this space, as the RNC approaches and the atmosphere in New York (which is also my home) heats up.
Sky Box, an image of the conventions as media event, which is also a fading image, is just the name of the album. The songs are still to come.
CyberJournalist.Net had this overview of Knight-Ridder's convention blogging from Boston.
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