An Olympic-sized opportunity missed
You wouldn't know it from watching television this week, but political conventions are about far more than politics. They are about policy, about embracing the successes of the past and preparing for the challenges of the future. They are the parties' best opportunity to share their visions for America with the people who will decide which course we will take. And because a nation is not defined by lines on a map but by the ideals it stands for, conventions are about America itself -- who we are, what we'll do, and what we won't.
It was easy to lose sight of that while watching television coverage of the Democratic convention this week. Not because the convention speakers weren't talking about policies and values and ideals -- they were -- but because the media wasn't paying much attention to any of that. Instead, the media treated the convention as purely a political matter -- are the Democrats unified? Should they criticize President Bush and Sen. John McCain more? Was Sen. Hillary Clinton's speech good enough? Too good? (No, really: several journalists suggested that might have been the case.) How many pronouns did she use? Will Sen. Barack Obama get a "bounce" in the polls? ABC's convention coverage actually featured Good Morning America co-host Robin Roberts channeling Republican mockery of the stage design for Obama's speech by chanting "Toga! Toga!" Yes, that really happened.
Watching television coverage of the convention, with the relentless focus on what the Democrats should do, whether they did it well enough, what they didn't do but should have, and how people would react to it, it often seemed that many journalists don't really have much interest in journalism; they'd rather play armchair campaign manager.
The media's obsessive focus on what the Democrats should be doing and how they should be doing it is, of course, a spectacular waste of time. But it's worse than that: It squanders the attention of the American people, during one of the weeks when they pay the most attention to the presidential campaign. Tuesday night, 26 million viewers watched Hillary Clinton's speech, nearly as many as the 27 million U.S. viewers NBC's Olympics coverage averaged per night. More than 38 million people watched Barack Obama's speech Thursday night -- more than watched the Olympics opening ceremony, the final American Idol, and the Academy Awards this year. It's possible that most of those viewers were tuning in to hear Chris Matthews' assessment of who is and is not a "regular person" (answer: middle-aged white men). But it seems more likely that they were watching for more substantive reasons -- if they wanted to watch journalists playacting at being campaign strategists, the cable news channels would probably have significantly higher ratings during non-convention weeks.
So there was a huge audience -- an Olympic-sized audience -- tuning in to watch a political convention; a perfect opportunity for the media to help voters educate themselves about the parties and candidates -- what they've done, whether it worked, what they say they'll do, and how it will likely affect the country.
Instead, readers and viewers were treated to an endless parade of journalists substituting cocktail-party chatter for useful coverage. During Wednesday's convention coverage, CNN's Jeffrey Toobin and Carl Bernstein seemed fed up with their own profession:
SOLEDAD O'BRIEN (CNN host): Do you think it matters at all -- anyone can jump in on this -- that President [Bill] Clinton will not stay for Barack Obama's speech on Thursday?
TOOBIN: Nothing. Who cares? My God, we fixate on these ridiculous little things.
O'BRIEN: Well, I'm not -- I didn't --
TOOBIN: I mean, I just think it's ridiculous. Who cares whether he's there or not?
O'BRIEN: OK, I asked that tone -- that question in a nice tone, and you're jumping on me.
BERNSTEIN: No, I think -- I think it's part of a larger question, and that is: What is the role of the press, particularly cable news, in this election? And at what point do we tip to a kind of minute picking apart and tea-leaf reading? I'm not even saying your question is --
O'BRIEN: I don't take it personally, don't worry.
BERNSTEIN: -- is -- but I think -- and it's the evening news shows, as well, but I -- and on the Web -- but I think that we need more perspective. We need to step back.
On Thursday, Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus provided a perfect example of journalists' obsession with analyzing campaign strategy at the expense of actually providing their readers and viewers with useful information. Marcus wrote:
As issues become increasingly complex -- voters can't be expected to parse the technical differences between the candidates' cap-and-trade emissions plans or the distributional effects of their tax cuts -- biography, especially biography laced with conflict and resolution, becomes a proxy for providing assurance that the candidate can be counted on to get it right on the more difficult matters.
Voters can't be expected to parse the differences between the candidates' policies, according to Marcus -- and in many cases, she's right. But news organizations can be expected to do so: They have the time, and the resources, and they can hire reporters with the necessary expertise or the ability to obtain it. They can clearly and consistently explain what the candidates' policy proposals mean, how they would work, and how they differ. That would provide actual value to their customers, giving readers and viewers something that, as Marcus notes, they cannot get on their own.
Instead, they too often spend their airtime and column inches offering "analysis" of things like whether the candidates are "connecting" with voters. This provides absolutely no value to their customers. A reader doesn't need The Washington Post to tell her whether she feels a "connection" with Barack Obama or John McCain. If the reader cares about "connections" with candidates, the reader knows far better than the Post whether she feels one. The "analysis" is perhaps marginally interesting as cocktail party chatter; as journalism, it is pointless vanity and role-playing -- if reporters want to be campaign managers, they should go do that. But if they want to be journalists, they should start by giving their customers important information they can't get on their own -- like helping them "parse the technical differences" between the candidates' plans.
This week's convention coverage provided a golden opportunity to do so: Olympic-sized audiences; an electorate desperate for new ideas and leadership (81 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States, according to the latest USA Today/Gallup poll); convention speeches that were largely about policies and American ideals and themes rather than personal criticisms, and plenty of airtime and column inches to fill.
But too few reporters seized that opportunity. Next week provides the media a second chance to give voters the substantive coverage they need. Let's hope they take it.