The Media Tale Wags the Convention Dog

President Reagan gives his acceptance speech at the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas.

President Reagan gives his acceptance speech at the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas. National Archives hide caption

itoggle caption National Archives

Journalists have been going to the presidential nominating conventions since the quadrennial confabs began in 1832. But in recent years the relationship between the reporters and the reported has changed fundamentally.

For nearly a century and a half, the journalists went to conventions to witness history in the making. But three decades of design changes have so denatured these events that they no longer make decisions. They rarely even make news. They are show events. Advertorials.

Consequently, the 15,000 credentialed media who will be on hand in Boston next week are not just attending the convention, they are the prime motivation for having it. They will be presenting the Democratic Party with its best opportunity to sell John Kerry, the Massachusetts senator, as a prospective president of the United States.

Were it not for this massive media presence, the four-night extravaganza would be no more important for the party, the candidate or the nation than any other pep rally, party or fundraiser on the campaign trail.

This is not to say that the reverse relationship between pursued and pursuer is unique to the media and Democrats in Boston. It will apply as well when the lights go up on the Republican gathering of the tribes in New York City late in August. We already know the results of every vote and the batting order of speakers on each night of that dog-and-pony show, too.

In the case of the GOP in Gotham, the media have inspired even the choice of location. What better place to invoke the memory of Sept. 11, 2001, the centerpiece of the president's re-election campaign, than in Madison Square Garden, mere blocks from Ground Zero?

Just as the Boston theme is selling Kerry as a national-security Democrat, the New York story features the incumbent as the national avenger and the scourge of al Qaeda.

The Republicans will also feature a subplot: former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who does double duty as both a 9-11 hero and a high-profile moderate on social issues. While the contemporary Republican Party was built by conservatives, its advertising this summer in Manhattan will raise the proverbial "big tent" of tolerance. Here again we see how important the media have become. Would this party be muffling its spikier spokesmen in prime time if only delegates were present?

Speaking of prime time, there will be less of it this year than ever. All the cable news operations will offer full coverage of the evening sessions, as will NPR. But the broadcast networks, which still bring the largest audiences to the party, have reduced their commitment to three hours: one each on the second, third and fourth nights.

From any aesthetic perspective, this makes sense. But it has enraged the party officials, who are desperately trying to persuade the big nets to expand their time. Half a century ago, some convention officials were not sure they even wanted the broadcast coverage. Now who does the begging? The media are the tail that wags the convention dog.

It was not always this way. But television changed the conventions like it changed so much of the rest of American life. The first experimental cameras came in 1948, the first gavel-to-gavel coverage in the 1950s. The upstart news operations of the TV networks used their coverage of these events to introduce their anchors and other stars, helping establish their nightly newscasts. This, in turn, helped establish the age of TV news, diminishing the role of newspapers in the process.

But in 1968, TV coverage of the disturbances at the Democratic convention in Chicago deepened national division over the Vietnam War and helped drive the party from the White House. Since that time, the Democrats have chosen their delegates in primaries and caucuses, reducing the convention to its current state as a sideshow. Republicans had the last convention that almost mattered in 1976. Since then, their winners have been as pre-selected as their Democratic counterparts.

Far from allowing real power struggles at their conventions, both parties now strive to suppress any controversy at all. They want to seem organized, unified and in control. At this they have succeeded so well that they now seem scripted and uninteresting.

Yet the media come, every four years, as they always have. They will hope that this year things will be different, but just by being there they will guarantee the conventions remain the same.

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