Why convention coverage can't be Olympian.

Media criticism.
Aug. 26 2008 5:20 PM

Why Convention Coverage Can't Be Olympian

There's nothing NBC can teach the convention planners.

Stalagmite and stalactite columns. Click image to expand.
Footage of stalactite formation would be more interesting than the DNC coverage

"Is there a piece to do on what the convention producers could learn from NBC?" Slate Deputy Editor Julia Turner wrote in a 10:33 e-mail last night to the staff subject-lined "Convention vs. Olympics." "The pacing and production here are very slack!"

That Turner's blue eyes had been reduced to stinking abscesses by the opening minutes of CNN's coverage of the Democratic National Convention alerts us to the nonevent that the political conventions have become as well as the stupidity of Slate'ssending eight people to cover the Denver snooze. But I've already written that column.

Yet Turner's question is not completely stupid. The Olympics are a staged spectacle, like the political conventions. But the two events differ at their core in that the Olympics are about competition—and conflict—with hundreds of winners and thousands of losers, while the political conventions predetermined their winners before showtime and scripted themselves tighter than a space shuttle launch.

The Olympics fill space with motion and usually measure performance against a clock or a judge's call, giving cameras something to see. Modern conventions, on the other hand, unfold with all the drama of the formation of a stalactite. Actually, less drama than the formation of a stalactite. Captured with time-lapse cinematography, stalactite formation would be pretty cool. One measure of the conventions' languorous, eventless nature is the relative absence of instant replay in coverage. There are few real convention "highlights" for viewers to savor, a fact that NBC sports czar Dick Ebersol is powerless to change.

Last night's convention proceedings were such a swift-moving stream of nothing that Chris Cillizza, Dan Balz, and Jon Meacham had to thrash like salmon at a fish bridge to fill an eight-minute video segment on Washingtonpost.com recapping the events. And to think that the poor bastards have another three days to fill.

Although choreographed to perfection, the Olympics can never be scripted as thoroughly as the conventions. Spontaneity returns again and again to the Games: Smith and Carlos throwing their fisted salutes, the Munich massacre, the American ice hockey upset, Mary Decker colliding with Zola Budd, Ben Johnson's disqualification, and the Atlanta bombing. When was the last time an angry convention delegate did anything nearly as spontaneous as kicking a member of the rules committee in the face to protest a decision, as Cuba's Angel Valodia Matos did last weekend to dispute a tae kwon do referee's call? The Democratic Party's 1964 Atlantic City convention, perhaps? Or Chicago in 1968?

To attract Olympian audiences, the political conventions need more than advice on camera placement, set design, logos, and the pacing of speakers, films, and floor demonstrations. Because they'll never exceed the production values of the Olympics, let alone the opening and closing ceremonies, they should stop trying. Instead, the parties need to make the conventions matter.

One baby step toward that goal would be to truncate the festivities from four days to two or three. A four-day convention may have made sense in the last century, when it took days for delegates to travel to the site and the real business of picking a ticket happened in smoke-filled rooms. But now that the primary process determines the winner, why bother? We'd still complain about the boring convention, but we'd complain one fewer day.

Another way to make conventions matter would be to assign the delegates genuine work. Picking the location of the next national convention? Determining the order of the next presidential primaries? OK, I agree, that would be tedious, too. So here's my best thought: Award the silver—the vice presidential slot—to the runner-up in the convention vote that produces the presidential candidate (the gold). Not only would such a scheme goose a little life into the convention, it would juice the primary season. Call it "democracy."

Of course, the parties won't adopt any of these changes, because making the conventions matter runs against their interests. Coronations are predictable by definition. 

******

H.L. Mencken was of two minds about the conventions. In 1924, he wrote, "One sits through long sessions wishing all the delegates and alternates were dead and in hell—and then suddenly there comes a show so gaudy and hilarious, so melodramatic and obscene, so unimaginably exhilarating and preposterous that one lives a gorgeous year in an hour."

What's your favorite convention moment? Mine is Barry Goldwater's acceptance speech in 1964. Send your nominations to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word stalactite in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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