With just one exception over the last three decades, the two major parties have known the identity of their likely presidential candidate weeks or even months before gaveling their national political conventions open. For that reason, one way to improve coverage of the four-day, quadrennial conventions of Republicans and Democrats would be for the TV networks to assign sportscasters like Bob Costas, Joe Morgan, and John Madden instead of political journalists to report on the gatherings. They know how to make a game with a foregone conclusion seem entertaining.
A still better way to improve convention coverage would be to withdraw all reporters and force the curious to rely on a C-SPAN feed: Unless a brokered convention threatens to break out, these political gatherings tend to produce very little real news. Yet the networks, the newspapers, the magazines, and the Web sites continue to insist on sending battalions of reporters to sift for itsy specks of information. According to Forbes, 15,000 pressies are expected to attend each of the conventions. Slate, I'm embarrassed to admit, is sending a team of eight to Denver and six to St. Paul. Attention! Don Graham! We're spending your cash like it's Zimbabwean bank notes!
While your average political reporter doesn't think the conventions are a waste of time and resources, he's likely to agree that nothing very newsworthy actually happens at them. Oh, he may filibuster about how a looming platform battle promises to produce fissures in the party. But if you observe that platforms are written to be ignored by the candidate, he'll drop his point. Or he may argue that meeting all the important politicos up close at the convention will produce future news dividends. But he'll pout if you ask him whether the intimacy justifies the expense, which can easily exceed $3,000 per reporter for a bare-bones visit. (A single seat in the designated workspace area at a convention can cost more than $1,000, and an Internet connection is $850. Snacks purchased at the convention make ballpark food look affordable.)
As a last resort, he'll talk up the importance of covering vital speeches such as the ones given by Ann Richards *, Ted Kennedy, Pat Buchanan, and Barack Obama at previous conventions. This year, his eyes might glow with visions of a Clinton-Obama feud. When he stoops that low, you'll know you've won the debate.
As if on a mission to make the conventions even less substantive, the presumptive presidential candidates have taken to announcing their running mates before the party convenes. Party officials similarly do their best to vet convention speeches and speakers to make absolute certain that nobody says anything provocative. I'm convinced that the main reason the Democrats aren't giving John Edwards podium time this go-round is because voters finally want to hear him talk.
Why do the parties throw their meaningless conventions? As Andrew Ferguson wrote in the Weekly Standardfour years ago, the no-news extravaganza of a convention is excellent news for them. But what excuse do thousands of reporters have for attending? According to Ferguson, in the weeks leading up to the conventions, the press traditionally complains about the "empty ritual" of the "infomercial" that the parties have "choreographed." But that's just for show. They fight their colleagues for the honor to attend because a political convention is a gas to cover. It's like a vacation, only no spouses! There's free food, plenty of booze, nice hotels, lots of pals in the press and politics dishing gossip, and the assignment is easy to report. Ferguson concludes that political conventions exist only to make the second convention—the "journalists' convention"—possible. "The parasite has consumed the host," he 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. Or they'd go searching toilet stalls for somebody with a wide stance. Instead, they satisfy themselves by being the co-producers of a bad reality-TV show about the coronation of a man who would be king.
At past conventions, the New York Times capitalized on the faux drama by teaming reformed theater critic Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd to write about the pitiful political performances. But such a gimmick is hard to sustain. Knowing that the networks need a spectacle like the one staged at the opening of the Beijing Olympics to draw viewers, Barack Obama has scheduled a speech to the Democratic faithful at the 70,000-plus-capacity Invesco Field.
I'll bet that all the fireworks will be faked.