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Media Coverage Of Conventions Has Changed

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Media Coverage Of Conventions Has Changed

Election 2008

Media Coverage Of Conventions Has Changed

Media Coverage Of Conventions Has Changed

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Political Conventions today resemble a made-for-TV spectacle — and television is rebelling against it. The three TV networks only devote one hour a night. But it was not always so. The media's approach to covering conventions has evolved since the mayhem of 1968.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. More than 15,000 journalists, including some of our own, are planning to descend on the upcoming political conventions in Denver and St. Paul, and yet conventions these days don't generate much real news. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik explains how the chaos of a previous convention led to the carefully stage-managed production of the contemporary convention.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: So here's the way the current formula works, a packed convention hall, flags waving.

(Soundbite of music)

FOLKENFLIK: TV cameras panning the crowd to depict the grand mosaic that is America. A tall guy strides out. The crowd goes nuts in supposedly spontaneous rapture.

(Soundbite of applause)

FOLKENFLIK: And in this case, just four years ago, it was all fine until pretty much the moment the Democratic nominee opened his mouth and said these words.

Senator JOHN KERRY (Democrat, Massachusetts): I'm John Kerry, and I'm reporting for duty.

(Soundbite of applause)

FOLKENFLIK: And then he saluted. That was a painful moment to watch, born of the Democrats' insecurity that they may seem weak on military issues. But how did Kerry, a decorated war veteran, find himself saying those words?

Former CBS news anchor Dan Rather, now with the television channel HDNet, starts on this point.

Mr. DAN RATHER (Anchorman): I think it's important for people to understand that the conventions they see today are - there's nothing decided at the convention of importance. They're completely scripted and orchestrated to be an infomercial for the parties.

FOLKENFLIK: An infomercial for the parties, that is, a made-for-television spectacle. It's obvious once you hear it, which you do again and again, even from people like former Republican Party chairman Frank Fahrenkopf.

Mr. FRANK FAHRENKOPF (Former Chairman, Republican Party): In order to get the networks to cover you, you've got to make this have a showbiz part of all this.

FOLKENFLIK: And yet television, oddly, is rebelling against the spectacle designed for its consumption. Though PBS and NPR do hours of primetime coverage, the big three commercial TV networks only devote one hour a night at best, and they can justify it, pointing to the cable news channels, which themselves provide blanket coverage of a sort, as a lot of the speeches become backdrops for their own political chat shows.

It's nothing like when Dan Rather was a floor reporter for CBS at the conventions in 1968, a time of riots, assassinations and war. Thousands of students were massing in Chicago to protest, and delegates hadn't settled on a nominee yet.

Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley had promised President Lyndon Johnson he'd have a firm hand on the city and the Democratic convention, but it was more like bedlam.

(Soundbite of broadcast)

Mayor RICHARD J. DALEY (Democrat, Chicago): Dan Rather?

Mr. RATHER: And what is your name, sir? Take your hands off of me.

Former Mayor DALEY: Dan Rather?

Mr. RATHER: Unless you intend to arrest me, don't push me, please.

FOLKENFLIK: Rather was interviewing a man being hustled out of the convention center by security guards, and the reporter found himself laid out on the ground, kind of a down goes Frazier moment.

(Soundbite of broadcast)

Mr. RATHER: I'm sorry to be out of breath, but somebody belted me in the stomach doing that.

FOLKENFLIK: The venerable Walter Cronkite weighed in from the CBS booth.

(Soundbite of broadcast)

Mr. WALTER CRONKITE (Anchorman): I think we've got a bunch of thugs here.

FOLKENFLIK: The Democrats lost control of the convention and the images in tens of millions of American homes. Those broadcasts showed a party unable to govern itself, much less the nation.

Four years later, endless votes and speeches on the Democrat convention floor meant the nominee, George McGovern, wasn't able to have his say until well past midnight, and that's well past primetime, when people might be actually watching on TV. But the Republican had a plan.

Rather got a hold of a script to the 1972 GOP convention re-nominating President Richard Nixon.

Mr. RATHER: Then it turned out that they acknowledged it and said, yeah, we see this as a television show and we've scripted it as a television show. That was the first time in our history that it had been done anywhere near to that extent.

FOLKENFLIK: And then began the inexorable march toward that infomercial. Democrat Gary Ross attended his first convention as a delegate in 1980.

Mr. GARY ROSS (Democratic Delegate): You know, I was a brash, young, cocky kid, and I voted for George Orwell for vice president because I thought it was such a travesty that the conventions had devolved into just a piece of advertising instead of a deliberative process.

FOLKENFLIK: Ross knows something about artifice. He's the filmmaker and screenwriter behind "Dave" and "Seabiscuit" and is a sometime speechwriter for leading Democratic candidates.

The drama for the Democrats in 1980 was Senator Ted Kennedy's challenge to a sitting president, Jimmy Carter. The inevitable finally took hold, and Kennedy conceded but still upstaged the president.

Senator TED KENNEDY (Democrat, Massachusetts): The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.

FOLKENFLIK: And when Carter and Kennedy shared the podium, Kennedy eluded Carter's grasp for a joint victor's wave on national TV.

Mr. FAHRENKOPF: That was a disaster, what happened. And that got shown and shown again, how the two men had their backs to each other, and you know, there really wasn't any healing, and I think that - that that no doubt hurt President Carter in his election bid that year.

FOLKENFLIK: That's former Republican Party chief Frank Fahrenkopf again. He led his party's conventions with a tightness the late Mayor Daley would have envied.

Mr. FAHRENKOPF: I had a script in my hand of what everyone was going to say, from the time I gaveled the convention to order. I used to jokingly tell the speakers that I had a button that I could push, and if they went off the script they would drop through the floor in the podium.

FOLKENFLIK: In 1984, the late Michael Deaver developed a movie on the life of President Reagan to remind voters why they liked him so much. Fahrenkopf says he can remember…

Mr. FAHRENKOPF: Spending a great deal of time in 1984 in my suite with Ed Rollins, who was then the campaign manager, and all the network executives -the networks had made a decision that they weren't going to run the film.

FOLKENFLIK: The networks complained it was advertising. Fahrenkopf says it's the party's effort to put its best foot forward, and the American people deserve a chance to see a lot more of that unfiltered.

Best foot forward also meant the actual nominations had to be wrapped up well ahead of the formal nominating convention, which to the journalism world meant there was little real news. And party elders like Fahrenkopf concede…

Mr. FAHRENKOPF: The suspense went out of the conventions, and that had a lot to do with the current attitudes of the national media.

FOLKENFLIK: In 1996, Ted Koppel, then still with ABC News, left the Republican convention in San Diego, saying it wasn't worth it. But people kept coming back. Even with all the layoffs in the newspaper world, there are 15,000 journalists headed to cover the conventions. And so you're once again hearing voices saying reporters shouldn't go, such as new media guru Jeff Jarvis on CNN's "Reliable Sources" earlier this month.

(Soundbite of television program "Reliable Sources")

Mr. JEFF JARVIS (Media Guru): It's an ego thing and it's a show-off thing. Some news organizations are supposedly cutting back. They haven't named who's cutting back, but we've some of them cut back some. Meanwhile, there are bloggers filling in those chairs.

FOLKENFLIK: CNN, it should be noted, is among those sending a huge contingent. There will be plenty of attention paid to the outcome of what Democratic filmmaker Gary Ross calls John McCain's six-month wrestling match with a teleprompter. And Barack Obama's acceptance speech? That won't come in the Denver convention hall at all, but outside at a football arena seating 70,000 people in what his campaign hopes will be yet another made-for-TV spectacular.

David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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