The coverage on public television remains considerably lengthier, though no longer what one could call comprehensive. These days, only the invaluable C-SPAN provides something approaching gavel-to-gavel coverage. It’s important to remember, however, that cable still reaches only two-thirds of the country. That leaves a lot of people dependent on the very networks struggling to put their own spin on events already so highly spun as to resemble cotton candy. As a result, the journalism has be-come as predictable as the event being covered.
The irony, of course, is that all that micromanaging was in the service of packaging the conventions for television, and now nobody wants them. Not the broadcast networks, which have allotted a mere hour of primetime each night for the 1996 conventions, and certainly not viewers, who, to paraphrase Samuel Goldwyn, have been staying away in droves, at least for the first three days of the Republican convention in San Diego.
Indeed, by midweek, Ted Koppel had packed his bags and declared both confabs henceforth unworthy of live coverage on his franchise, “Nightline.” Yet an argument can be made that the fact that the conventions are almost exclusively ceremonial doesn’t excuse the networks from the responsibility of covering them. Back in 1984, when the networks began seriously cutting back on convention coverage, former CBS News president Ed Joyce told the New York Times that news divisions are “in the business of covering the ceremonies of our nation. That’s part of our obligation of service.”
The ’84 conventions were the first for all three of the networks’ new anchors: ABC’s Peter Jennings, CBS’ Dan Rather and NBC’s Tom Brokaw. This time around, on opening night in San Diego, they were more determined than ever to show they weren’t about to be pushed around by political hacks. So, for example, while the delegates were held rapt by a filmed salute to Ronald Reagan — talk about ceremony — Rather was chatting up keynoter Susan Molinari before the CBS cameras finally went live to Nancy Reagan.
Big Three network viewers missed J.C. Watts, a young black representative from Oklahoma of surpassing eloquence (“I have a simple way of defining character,” he said, preaching gospel to this crowd. “Doing what’s right when nobody’s looking.”); you had to find him on PBS and C-SPAN. Ditto the smarmy, schoolmarmy Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who asked, “Don’t you think it’s time to elect a president who will keep Bill Clinton’s promises?” and made good use of video in an attempt to embarrass the president.
Was it all a show of unity and diversity in a party that can boast very little of either? Sure. But we viewers are not dumb. Yes, the convention was cleansed of the platform battles that might actually have piqued audience interest, but there was still some value in the ceremony taking place. And, notwithstanding Koppel’s snit, it was worth it just to be able to witness firsthand, in real time, the stunning irrelevance of House Speaker Newt Gingrich , even as he tried to morph the convention into a Jerry Lewis telethon.
Don’t expect Bill Maher to pack his bags. On Comedy Central, “Politcally Incorrect” got way down and dirty each night, most memorably during a confrontation Wednesday between Alec Baldwin and Laura Ingraham that was not only smart but completely, satisfyingly, nasty.
And in the end, I’ll take C-SPAN’s silent, open eye over MSNBC’s Brian Williams blathering about the “flavor of Susan Molinari” and the “flavor” of the floor — yeccccch! as they used to say in Mad magazine — any day.