I had to chuckle when I read about the newsroom-wide email New York Times executive editor Bill Keller sent out to his staff last week on the eve of his political team deploying to Denver, and then St. Paul, to cover the political conventions. In his electronic memo, Keller praised the newspaper's coverage of the just-completed Beijing Olympics ("dazzling"), and, like any good newsroom manager, challenged the rest of the newspaper to match that excellence. Specifically, he called on his political team to reach the same journalistic heights at the conventions that the Times' sports department had achieved in Beijing.
I laughed not because I thought the Times' coverage of the Olympics didn't deserve a pat on the back. Indeed, the Times crew seemed to cover the Olympics with uniform skill and grace. Its pages were filled with often brilliant deadline writing, insightful analysis, gripping human interest stories, and eye-popping photography. (And the Times' Internet-based coverage was just as impressive.)
My caustic chuckle sprang from the fact that Keller actually thought the Times' upcoming convention coverage was going to achieve some kind of greatness. That the Times team was going to gumshoe Denver like no other news team, drill down to the issues that were driving the campaign, break away from the news pack to uncover fresh angles, and set some kind of news standard for political reporting.
The sad truth was that the coverage, not just from the Times but from virtually every traditional outlet I sampled, was a fiasco. And it made my head hurt.
How 15,000 credentialed journalists could descend on Denver and produce such unvaryingly weak and shoddy coverage of a staged news event -- and do it with coverage that celebrated sameness and shallowness -- was a sad spectacle that newsrooms nationwide ought to ponder.
What we saw beamed out of Beijing, both in print and video form, was often memorable journalism. What we saw seep out of Denver was a farce.
Not content to simply cover what was, by every standard, an historic and fascinating political gathering, the press felt the need to embellish the storylines (when not completely inventing them), tell news consumers what to think and how to feel, and to hog the spotlight by turning themselves into the topic of news reports. The media hordes "got in the way of the story, because they made themselves the story," noted Brooke Gladstone at NPR. (Exhibit A.)
Note that approximately 20,000 journalists covered the sprawling Beijing Olympics, and think about the wonderful journalism they produced for news consumers all around the world relaying headlines and capturing the emotions of that two-week epic event. By contrast, in Denver, 15,000 pros camped out and pretty much embarrassed their profession for nearly four days straight.
First of all, why on earth would 15,000 journalists cover any convention? And why do major American outlets, as confirmed by Keller's email, view the staged political events to be as newsworthy as a global phenomenon such as the Olympics?
Note that for this year's conventions, USA Today sent 34 journalists, compared to the 41 staffers the paper assigned to cover the Olympics. (The Washington Post sent 38 journalists to the convention, plus an undisclosed number from its website, for a total of more than 50.) I'm guessing the Times sent roughly the same number as USA Today to both the convention and to Beijing. Yet look how badly the Denver team underperformed as compared to the Times' Olympics reporting and commentary.
Or did Times execs consider Maureen Dowd's Denver column to be an example of journalistic insight? That was the one where the first person she quoted to capture the "vibe" of the Democratic convention was a Republican consultant. (Naturally, the partisan pro claimed "submerged hate" permeated the event.)
And what about Patrick Healy's August 28, page one article about Hillary's address to the convention where Healy reported, in the second paragraph, that she "took steps on Tuesday -- deliberate steps, aides said -- to keep the door open to a future bid for the presidency." As the Daily Howler noted, there wasn't a single fact or quote in the entire article to back up Healy's fictitious claim that bolstered the "ill will" theme of the article's opening. Was that the kind of Denver gold Keller was hoping for?
Imagine if a Times reporter filed a front-page story from Beijing about Michael Phelps and inserted a completely unsupported claim up high in the article that made Phelps look petty and selfish. Think Times editors would have printed it?
And what about Times heavy hitter Jill Abramson, who wrote matter-of-factly on Friday that the Monday-through-Wednesday portion of the convention had a theme, and "its narrative was [the Clinton] soap opera." And specifically, the "narrative" was whether Bill and Hillary would "behave themselves" and "embrace Barack Obama."
She wrote that after the convention had concluded, after Bill and Hillary Clinton had enthusiastically endorsed Barack Obama and after Democrats ended the convention on an historic and united front. Even then, the Times was still pushing the media's beloved narrative of a Clinton "soap opera" and how the two nearly ripped the party in two inside the Pepsi Center.
Question for Abramson: Who pre-selected that "soap opera" narrative? Answer: The press. What actual proof did the press have to support it? Almost none. (Hillary Clinton had already publicly, and formally, endorsed Obama months prior to the convention.) I suspect if a truth serum poll could have been conducted in Denver to find out how many professional pol watchers within the press corps actually thought that Bill or Hillary Clinton would refuse to "embrace" Obama at the convention, the answer would have been zero. But how many within the press pretended for days that that was a possibility? Almost all of them.
Indeed, there was lots of pretending going on in Denver, like when Politico suggested Hillary Clinton might be booed by Obama delegates during her address. And when, prior to Bill Clinton's taking the Denver stage, MSNBC's Chris Matthews raised the possibility that he might get a Bronx cheer. (Apparently because they're such divisive figures within the Democratic Party.) Viewers who saw the rapturous welcome both Clinton's received will recall that those predictions were inaccurate.
The Newark Star-Ledger was just one of many news outlets that pretended about Hillary Clinton's speech, claiming it "was the most anxiously awaited moment of the convention."
Really? Twelve million more viewers tuned in to Obama's speech than watched Clinton's address. Yet the press, confusing themselves for actual voters, told us all week that Americans were fixated on the runner-up. And all week long, that passed as insight.
What was behind that type of half-baked Times/Politico/Matthews convention analysis? The answer is that it was based on nothing. The concocted Clinton storylines simply reflected what some journalists wanted to see happen, which then made it slightly plausible, and therefore news. (Speculating now trumps reporting.) To suggest that approach demolishes decades' worth of American journalism standards would be an understatement.
It's impossible to escape the conclusion that journalists for much of the week in Denver weren't informing news consumers about the unfolding event, they were purposefully misinforming people. (Bill and Hill might snub Obama!) Think about where journalism is heading when an entire industry knowingly adopts a false narrative and pushes it for days simply because it likes it; because it gives journalists a good storyline.
Fifteen thousand journalists in Denver and they couldn't even report what actually happened there. Instead, they invented a storyline of their liking. And (surprise!) it was one that demeaned Democrats.
And that's where the real harm came, because Denver wasn't simply a case of too many journalists chasing too few stories and having to fill up too much air time (i.e., being boring). It was a case of too many journalists embracing manufactured stories in order to fill up airtime.
Like the insipid, day-long media boomlet, propagated by the GOP, about whether or not the columns constructed for the stage Obama appeared on Thursday night at Invesco Field would somehow take away from his speech or distract viewers.
Or the incessant media mentions about the long-debunked myth that Pennsylvania Gov. Bob Casey Sr. was denied a speaking role at the 1992 Democratic convention because he opposed abortion rights.
And guess what? All the bogus convention storylines poked Democrats. Do you think the same press trend will continue in St. Paul this week? Will journalists attach themselves to flimsy narratives that make Republicans look weak and divided? I have my doubts.
What's so curious about the effusive, often breathless, convention coverage we see today is that not that long ago there was growing media momentum to shun the events. Remember back in 1996 when ABC's Ted Koppel famously packed up his Nightline crew after two days at the GOP convention in San Diego and went home, complaining there was no news to report at the tightly scripted pageants? (Koppel still feels that way, making the inarguable point on NBC last week that the conventions could easily be covered by 1,000 journalists instead of 15,000.)
There was a growing feeling that took root in the late 1990s that the overscripted conventions were a joke in terms of news, that they insulted the intelligence of serious journalists, and that something needed to be done to change them (i.e., shorten them) because it was becoming increasingly difficult to justify lavishing so much time and attention on the quadrennial confabs.
Fast forward to 2008 and ask yourselves: Have the national conventions become any less scripted? No. If anything, the conventions have become more controlled. But boy, the media's attitude towards them has completely reversed.
Rather than pulling the cameras back as Koppel suggested, the amount of TV time devoted to conventions (well, the amount of TV time devoted to talking about the conventions on-site) has absolutely exploded. Thanks to cable television's nearly around-the-clock coverage, there were easily 150 hours set aside last week for the Democratic convention.
Television's eruption of convention interest mirrors the widespread enthusiasm throughout the press corps for the political events. No longer seen as insulting, artificial events that had to be covered for tradition's sake, the press now revels in the conventions -- celebrates them! -- and treats them as wildly important, entertaining, and newsworthy.
To me, that 180-degree shift from "Conventions are fake!" to "Conventions are awesome!" captures the disappearing standards within political journalism and how a new breed of shallowness has been embraced and become a hallmark trait.
Prior to Denver's opening gavel, Slate's Jack Shafer, bemoaning the obvious press excesses surrounding the non-news conventions, wrote, "If the political press corps were honest, they'd start every convention story with the finding that nothing important happened that day and that your attention is not needed."
His take was dead-on. And that was before we knew what kind of leaky journalism was going to ooze out of Denver.