Media madness and the presidential conventions

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks at the Democratic National Convention, Denver, Colorado, August 25-28, 2008. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith. Source: Library of Congress.

America is way deep into the presidential race, and the party conventions are fast approaching. Democrats gather in Milwaukee on August 17 and Republican start their whoop-up a week later.

In the coming weeks, the media will produce an ocean of purple prose on these Cow Palace jamborees. If the past is prologue, much of the media coverage will be dreck. Why this is so is illuminated by Joan Didion’s clear-eyed essay, “Insider Baseball” (1988).

Partially, it is a product of the conventions being a multi-day hooplas where the end is preordained. They are, as Jay Cost notes, “spectacles,” shows scripted for producing narratives. Additionally, It is not easy to fill great chasms of air time and column space when so much of what is happening is unremarkable: various hyper partisan individuals mulling about with one another while waiting for some political figure to take the stage to gas bag —often at painful lengths— about the evils of the other party’s nominee and the gloriousness of the home team’s pick. Making such bland fare appealing to any viewers and readers necessitates that politicos and media alike contrive excitement. Even their most successful efforts —think Pat Buchanan’s culture war speech— fail to attract notice beyond the elite political class, the very small percentage of the population who pays any attention.

And this is where Didion’s essay is so sharp. She points out that the whole event is unreal and inauthentic. Below are some of my favorite clips from “Insider Baseball.”

“‘The process today gives everyone a chance to participate,’ [said] Tom Hayden, by way of explaining ‘the difference’ between 1968 and 1988…. This was at a convention that had as its controlling principle the notably nonparticipatory idea of ‘unity,’ demonstrably not true, but people inside the process, constituting as they do a self-created and self-referring class, a new kind of managerial elite, tend to speak of the world not necessarily as it is but as they want people out there to believe it is.”

“These were people who spoke of the process as an end in itself, connected only nominally, and vestigially, to the electorate and its possible concerns…. When we talk about the process, then, we are talking, increasingly, not about ‘the democratic process,’, or the general mechanism affording the citizens of a state a voice in its affairs, but the reverse: a mechanism seen as so specialized that access to it is correctly limited to its own professionals, to those who manage policy and those who report on it, to those who run the polls and those who quote them, to those who ask and those who answer questions on the Sunday shows, to the media consultants, to the columnists, to the issue advisers, to those who give off-the-record breakfasts and to those who attend them; to those who invent, year in and year out, the narrative of public life.”

“An average of 18.5 percent of what Nielsen Media Research calls the ‘television households’ in the United States tuned into network coverage of the 1988 Republican convention in new Orleans, meaning 81.5 percent did not. An average of 20.2 percent of these ‘television households’ tuned into network coverage of the 1988 Democratic convention in Atlanta, meaning 79.8 percent did not.”

That the convention is inauthentic should be no surprise—the whole presidential nominating and general election campaign, Didion observes, is very much a production for the media, and secondarily for those who might vote. Didion also describes the unsavory relationship between those running for office and those who report upon it. Didion writes:

“American reporters ‘like’ covering a presidential campaign (it gets them out on the road, it has balloons, it has music, it is viewed as one big story, one that leads to the respect of one’s peers, to the Sunday shows, to lecture fees and often to Washington, which is one reason there has developed among those who do it so arresting an enthusiasm for overlooking the contradictions inherent that which occurs to be reported. They are willing, in exchange for ‘access’, to transmit the images their sources want transmitted.”

Much of the candidates’ time is spent posing in places that media consultants believe transmit a message, and interacting with individuals for the sake of captivating the media. “The symbiosis here was complete, and the only outsider was the increasingly hypothetical voters, who was seen as responsive not to actual issues but to their adroit presentation.”

Didion shows how even some of the most respected reporters get sucked into producing the equivalent of PR and pointless dreck.

For sure, Didion’s take is pretty jaundiced—in fact, she has virtually nothing positive to say about the presidential conventions. But she’s not wrong about their elite and inauthentic nature.

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