This weekend, as an estimated 15,000 reporters head to Denver for the Democratic National Convention, Slate’s Jack Shafer asks, why? There hasn’t been a contested nomination since 1976, he argues, and news organizations’ resources would be best put to use elsewhere. Brooke puts his arguments to the test.
BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Cue the music! [MUSIC, MUSIC UP AND UNDER] On Monday the Democratic National Convention kicks off in Denver. If all goes as planned, everything will happen on cue. The following week the Republicans convene in Minneapolis/St. Paul, same deal.
Some 15,000 journalists are expected to attend each convention. But why? It's been more than 30 years since the last nomination was contested, and even the vice presidential picks are announced in advance. So barring injury, insanity or acts of God, no news will be broken. Cue the balloons. [MUSIC] And now, cue the discussion about how predictable the conventions are. Jack Shafer is Slate's editor-at-large and Press Box columnist. He's calling for a press boycott of the conventions. Jack, welcome back to the show. JACK SHAFER: Hey, good to be here. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Isn't there an argument to be made for being there simply so that we can question the party talking points, analyze them, criticize them? JACK SHAFER: Sure, but you don't need 15,000 reporters to do that. And according to Forbes Magazine that's going to be the attendance. This is a little bit like the United States invading Grenada. You don't need several carriers, bombers, thousands of infantry to do a job that could probably be, you know, contracted out to the Kelly Girls. [BROOKE LAUGHS] JACK SHAFER: I'm not calling for an absolute boycott. BROOKE GLADSTONE: All right, but when you say 15,000 is too many, what's too few? We can do a comparison with prunes. JACK SHAFER: I would not oppose every news organization that was interested sending one person, one person. So, you know, maybe six or seven-hundred people show up to cover this thing. BROOKE GLADSTONE: PBS is planning to air complete coverage of both conventions. Do you think that's a waste of taxpayer money? JACK SHAFER: Of course. BROOKE GLADSTONE: But what about the fact that the networks — are often accused of having a lack of civic consciousness for airing only one hour each night? JACK SHAFER: I think the networks, the broadcast networks started cutting back their coverage to practically nothing because the event itself is a scripted event designed to be devoid of news. The news organizations have to, especially in these days, have to perform some sort of triage on their news budget. Better that they call back reporters from covering stories in Iraq to cover this pageant? BROOKE GLADSTONE: But I still come back to my, my previous question: if 15,000 is too many, given the possibility of good stories outside the hall, given the, I think, value of covering the pageantry, to some degree in the hall, the possibility that something terrible could happen — that's why we have reporters covering every presidential event since the Kennedy assassination. JACK SHAFER: Imagine if the Macy's Parade went on for four days, would you advocate that we down in Washington send reporters up there because there might be some news? BROOKE GLADSTONE: What about the argument that local stations want to cover their local delegations? JACK SHAFER: Doing what? [BROOKE LAUGHS] Better that they should spend the money writing about what the state legislators and the, and the Federal legislators are doing. The reason journalists want to go, Brooke, is that it's a great party for them. There's lots of free booze. There's lots of free food. If they covered the campaign, it's a kind of reunion - hey, good to see you again. And I say an end to it.
Andy Ferguson made this observation a couple of years ago in The Weekly Standard that the conventions have basically become journalism conventions. And his great one-liner was that "The parasite has become the host." BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, you suggest that news outlets send sportswriters to cover the convention. What can they do that the rest of us can't? JACK SHAFER: They can write entertaining, interesting copy from a new perspective. They can see through the bull feathers that a national convention really is. They've not been co-opted by the process.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sportswriters frequently write stories about games that are foregone conclusions. JACK SHAFER: Yeah, but every sportswriter, even if he's writing about a blowout baseball game, he'll find something interesting about the third inning or about the ejection of a manager.
Tell me, Brooke, you're a news professional, how much time have you budgeted during both of those conventions to watch the coverage and to read it in your daily newspaper? BROOKE GLADSTONE: I have to say that, like the polls indicate about much of America, I am more engaged in this election than I have been in some recent ones. In, in the past, I haven't devoted much more than an hour a night to the conventions, if that. This one, I might actually have some — genuine interest in.
JACK SHAFER: Mm-hmm. BROOKE GLADSTONE: That's the honest truth. JACK SHAFER: This is the first time I've ever doubted your judgment — BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] JACK SHAFER: — in the whole 25 years that I've known you. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let me ask you, have you ever been to a convention? JACK SHAFER: Of course not. BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] JACK SHAFER: Of course not. For the last 30 years, when there's no — there's no contest, there's no contest! Remember what you said at the top? There's been no serious contested nomination since Reagan took on Ford in '76. So why go? BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jack, thanks very much. JACK SHAFER: Anytime. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jack Shafer is Slate's editor-at-large, and he writes the Press Box column.