No News Is Bad News: TV and the Conventions

by Rosemary and Walter Brasch

During the time that Bill Clinton was rocking the Democratic convention, ABC, CBS, and Fox were showing re-runs, NBC was showing the second hour of “America’s Got Talent,” and the CW was showing the second season finale of “Pussycat Dolls Present: Girlicious.”

Less than two decades ago, the networks gave the conventions gavel-to-gavel coverage. This year, the networks are giving only four hours prime time coverage to each convention.

The first televised conventions were in Philadelphia in 1948. At the time, only about 170,000 of the nation’s 42.2 million households had televisions. The networks, desperate to fill their government-issued airwaves, begged the nation to believe that television was at the cutting edge of the future. TV needed politicians; politicians weren’t so sure they needed TV. By 1960, more than 46 million of the nation’s 58 million households had at least one TV set, and most stations were broadcasting at least 16 hours a day. If anyone doubted the potential and power of television, it was quashed that year during the televised Nixon–Kennedy debates which gave the Massachusetts senator a lead he never lost. Eight years later, the cameras recorded the Chicago riots, giving credibility to the antiwar movement and virtually destroying the Democrats’ chance to defeat Richard Nixon, even though the liberal Hubert Humphrey deplored the police response and Mayor Richard Daley’s iron fist tactics. 

Once, the parties’ nominees for president were usually determined at the convention itself, not months earlier in the media-enhanced primary campaigns. On the floor of the convention, we at home, watching on 17-inch TV sets, looked forward to the roll call, as each state’s chairman stood up, usually dressed in something red-white-and outrageous, and declared for all America to hear, something to the effect: “Mr. Chairman, the great and glorious state of Globule Gulch, home of more than 50 hotdog stands per square mile and the most beautiful women on earth, the place where George Washington once slept and where cows peacefully graze on our healthy grass, proudly casts it 85 votes for its favorite son, Governor Lushpuppy Billings.”

By the late 1980s, TV demanded more and more, and the party leaders began to stage prime time shows to play to TV’s prime–time necessities.

Gone are the spontaneous floor events where delegates march, laugh, maybe argue with each other, and actually participate in helping shape the direction of their party, even when the nominee was an incumbent president. Does anyone hear about the party’s platform and its planks now? Does anyone even care? The signs on the convention floor are cookie-cutter conformity. The delegates are nothing more than props. Their role is to go to the myriad lobbyist-prepared parties, have fun, and act as extras for the show unfolding before them, and then go home and rally the grassroots support.

Last week, Barack Obama and his campaign staff controlled every aspect of the convention, including who would be the speakers, what and how they would say it, when each would appear and for how long. Only President Clinton’s speech wasn’t vetted. It won’t be any different this week with the Republicans, but the Republicans may have to check President Bush’s speech ahead of time, ’lest it become more comedic than planned.

It was the television media that created the atmosphere that demanded “interesting visuals” and the seven-second sound bite; and now the media are upset that politicians, in their infomercial packaged conventions that play to the camera, have nothing to say. The networks, which created the monster, are crying there isn’t any news—and they cut away from what is interesting, such as the speech by President Clinton—and turn the cameras onto themselves. The pontificating pundits with their semi-erudite commentaries and all-knowing blather that bores viewers more than any politician’s 20-minute speech, now dominate the prime time coverage and pretend what they’re saying actually matters. It’s hard to believe that 16,000 members of the media credentialed to cover each convention couldn’t find any news.

But, there is news. There are stories. The networks, sitting on their plush assets, have failed to dig out these stories to better help Americans understand the issues that affect them. And so the celebrity-driven media spent more time percolating the story of the division between the Hillary and Obama forces than trying to help Americans better understand the issues. If the mainstream media were to leave their color-coordinated broadcast booths and hospitality suites, as the alternative media have done, and dig beneath the puffery and pageantry, they may find the greater social and political issues that need to be reported, as well as the delightful “slice of life” stories that help us better understand our own lives.

The first TV conventions were the best of the emerging Reality TV programming before the medium sunk into who would eat what disgusting insect. America needs both the conventions and the media to be more real.

[Walter Brasch’s latest book is the second edition of Sinking the Ship of State: The Presidency of George W. Bush (November 2007), available through amazon.com and other bookstores. You may contact Brasch at brasch@bloomu.edu or through his website at: www.walterbrasch.com]

Bookmark and Share

About Walter Brasch

Columnist, author, journalism professor. Latest book is BEFORE THE FIRST SNOW: STORIES FROM THE REVOLUTION, a look at the couterculture from 1964, as seen through the eyes of a "flower child" who is now middle-aged--and of the reporter who covered her story. The book is available through Amazon.com . . . Check out website, www.walterbrasch.com for further info. Or, just write me: walterbrasch@gmail.com
Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to No News Is Bad News: TV and the Conventions

  1. How much trouble will we get into for speaking up as an American ? Brown got chewed out  by the producer on CNN cause he said she agreed with a contributor and she told us. She was on the bias side and just flew in from that exciting Denver convention! We’re all human and that includes our political leaders that are chewed up on a daily basis. You’ve got a blemish today,roll camera tomorrow. Obama needs new shoes and Mrs. Obama told him and the girls don’t like his belt. Hillary always looks smart and sharp in her pant suits and we have turned into a technology gone nuts society and nit picking on everybody ! There is a debate and fuss every time you turn around in politics! We’re calling question on the message projected on stage as Melissa E. sings,”God Bless America” at the democratic nomination party.Everybody’s dancing in those wild hats and needs to be looking up the definition of what a delegate is ! James Knox Polk would have needed smelling salts on that yell pass business !We’ll fight to the end on democracy an get it fair,clear and square ! Somebody needs to call Mrs. Jordon and or the headless horseman expert in technology and  we see your images projected Brook. The lighting was clever on that !Go look at DNCC Behind the scenes and video.Technology is amazing on the subliminal image question of it all. Wave your magical wand and push a few buttons but don’t get creative confusing the Preamble to the Constitution on written or meaning to assume anything but exactly what is means and says ! That calligraphy is trickie depending on camera angle and can cause confusion on image and meaning. Obama’s a constitutional attorney and accomplished ! He taught the Preamble folks and that W on calligraphy can be confused on image and message to resemble an M. Melissa E. sang her heart out on two meaningful great songs and now go put an eagle eye on the stage back drop and message we assume says, WE THE PEOPLE ! Will some read “ME” THE PEOPLE ? Eliminate all confusion and let’s be crystal clear democrats for Obama ! Beam up Scottie or somebody to Data Communications ! Go tell Obama and don’t be a yankee doodle chicken shoot, if you think there may be something to cause confusion  let someone know, cause millions are watching and we the people want the truth and no bias,no bull ! We’re picking the president,not who’s playing defense or zone. All this party line needs balance of fairness,facts,and clarity for clear message in this competition and we don’t all agree but we can all work to be objective to hire the best for the job of president. People work and come home to listen to the news and get things straight but let me tell ya,this politics is as trickie as that, is it an M or a W on that stage message. Not to mention the elevated language going on and it’s a lot to keep up with and they’re intelligent and gifted ! Are you ready for the catharis to argue and eliminate confusion on message ? The Preamble to the United States Constitution reads clearly from our founding father’s and make no mistake from technology or lighting in viewing of trickie calligraphy and image meaning ! WE THE PEOPLE OF THE UNITED STATES,IN ORDER TO FORM A MORE PERFECT UNION,ESTABLISH JUSTICE,INSURE DOMESTIC TRANQUILITY PROVIDE FOR THE COMMON DEFENSE,PROMOTE GENERAL WELFARE, AND SECURE THE BLESSINGS OF LIBERTY TO OURSELVES AND POSTERITY DO ORDAIN AND ESTABLISH THIS CONSTITUTION FOR THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA . Thought the democrats put on one heck of a production and God Bless the folks in that hurricane elephants and the McCain team is concerned as they move foward with their convention as all of us are ! We have a guest room here and “say bi sa !”

  2. Great job Senator McCain and yes we can Obama ! Way to go Clinton and Palin !

  3. Darrell Prows says:

    Having been there, I understand your points. We used to vote, and in some other countries people still do. Maybe we no longer think that we have choices that really do still exist, or maybe others really have choices that we no longer do. At least there now seems to be some effort to try to figure out these things, and that is an improvement over the recent past.

  4. ***COMMENT REMOVED BY MODERATOR***

  5. Research teams on go here ! 70’s stand up and saddle up ! Riders ride and sailors sail on !

  6. chippy says:

    I don’t want to watch convention coverage because of these liberally biased broadcasts are boring. But I am sure that once the Dems are back in power, they can force me to watch the Great Obama so I can see the error of my ways. In the meantime, I will watch “I Love Lucy” reruns. Plus, I already know what Obama is going to say. Vote for me and I will save you. I will give you everything you need. Yeah right, Mao and Stalin said the same thing.

  7. Darrell Prows says:

    Chippy: Someone needs to save the country and it sure isn’t going to be you dittoheads. I can hear your rightwing playbook talking points 100 times a day on every small town news/talk radio station across the country. Why don’t you go get an original thought and then come back?