Conventions’ Relevance Will Decide Coverage

Jan 19, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Few things are certain in life. One is that when the networks announce how much-that is, how little-of the political conventions they will cover this summer, officials from each party will denounce them.
Television is shirking its public duty, they will complain, adding that television is not a right but a privilege. They will denounce greedy broadcasters for making millions using the people’s airwaves, insisting the least they can do is transmit the people’s business, like these conventions. Everything that happens there, they will say, should reach every village and hamlet, every mountain and crossroads. Gavel to gavel, they will say. Like the old days. It’s the least broadcasters can do in return for free airwaves.
There will be editorials in newspapers and nasty telegrams to corner offices. “Gavel to gavel,” like a mantra.
The broadcasters will send spokespeople to answer that in the old days conventions made news, but now they are four-day infomercials. The candidates are chosen in primaries; the platforms, as if anybody cared, are decided before the conventions. They are pep rallies, not news.
But both sides will be reading from old scripts. Both the party bosses demanding gavel-to-gavel coverage and the network honchos turning them down are too young to remember when delegates struggled through multiple ballots to nominate candidates, and the public cared. Conventions like that were long ago.
Network radio, even in its golden years, never covered gavel to gavel. But in 1948 the infant TV saved money by shutting down New York studios, sending home actors and technicians and musicians and filling the day from Philadelphia, where both major parties were holding their conventions. (Live coverage that year reached 14 cities in the East, along the Atlantic Seaboard from Boston to Norfolk, Va., with a spur going up the Hudson River to Schenectady, N.Y.)
Furthermore, there was news. It took several ballots for the Republicans to nominate New York’s Gov. Tom Dewey, who had to beat off challenges from Minnesota Gov. Harold Stassen and Ohio Sen. Robert A. Taft.
And the Democrats had a problem. They could hardly refuse to nominate their sitting president, Harry Truman, but he was not popular. “I’m just mild about Harry,” they sang. When he came up from Washington-by train-to accept his party’s nomination, he was kept waiting in a stuffy anteroom until after midnight. And indeed, the networks covered all that gavel to gavel.
Next time around, in 1952, the conventions exploded with news. The Republicans were torn between the forces of General Dwight D. Eisenhower and Bob Taft’s supporters. Several delegations, mostly Southern, had rival slates, and the credentials committee had to choose who could sit in the hall and vote.
The committee let reporters but not TV cameras cover its meetings. So from time to time TV reporters would rush breathlessly out of the meeting room to tell the country what happened. In between, the cameras focused on the closed committee door. After one afternoon of that, local Republicans from all over America telegraphed their delegates in Philadelphia, demanding the cameras be allowed in. The closed door made the party look terrible and would lose votes.
The fighting was even hotter in the platform committee, and several meetings came close to fistfights. Delegations caucused in the basement of Chicago’s International Amphitheater-where both conventions gathered that year-in temporary rooms divided by plasterboard walls. Those meetings, too, tried to keep cameras out. An NBC accountant, whose job was checking expense accounts, was tagging along with a camera crew. When entrance was denied, he put his fist through the wall and made a hole for the camera.
The Democrats also ran a split convention. The party hierarchy, including President Truman, favored Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson. The big winner in the primaries was Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver-but there were still too few primaries to achieve a nomination. Other candidates dropped off as the balloting went on, leaving Stevenson and Kefauver battling to the finish. The convention, which began on a Monday afternoon, did not adjourn until Saturday.
Even as the primary system gradually took over the nomination process, the national political conventions of the 1960s and ’70s were the battlegrounds for the country’s two great controversies, the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement. Every four years, therefore, as convention time approached, sale of TV sets zoomed. And when everybody had a black-and-white, the convention did the same for color sets. Because there was news at those conventions.
News is supposed to be surprising, something you didn’t know before, something true today that was not true yesterday. If the party managers could figure out how the 2004 conventions could make real news, they might bring back gavel-to-gavel coverage.
It may not be a good idea to tell them.
Reuven Frank is a former president of NBC News.