TCS Daily

The Revolution Will Be Blogged, Won't It?

By Joshua Spivak - July 26, 2004 12:00 AM

In order to expand the reach of the increasingly ignored political conventions, the Democratic Party has announced that it is allowing 30 bloggers to cover the event. The Republicans have also opened up to this new medium. A spate of coverage acknowledged this new trend, and then moved on.

But, for the conventions themselves this could be a bigger issue. Can a new, more interactive form of coverage help revive some interest in the relic that is our national conventions, or will it further bury them?

For most of their existence, the conventions needed no help in receiving attention. Instituted on the national level starting in 1831, the conventions quickly made a major impact on the selection of presidents and were considered a distinct improvement on the previous method -- the congressional caucus. Unlike "King Caucus" the conventions allowed a much larger degree of voter participation. However, by the 1970s, the conventions were finally supplanted with the more democratic primary and caucus system used today.

Since then, the tightly scripted conventions have mainly served as a forum for political theater.

From an entertainment and information perspective, the conventions began their downward slide well before that. While they were once excitement personified, a place where "one lives a gorgeous year in an hour," according to H.L. Mencken, direct news coverage of the conventions actually might have made them less interesting. The first convention covered by radio was the longest ever, the famed 103rd Ballot convention for the Democrats in 1924, but none since then has gone past 6 ballots and few even went past the first. Since its first appearance on television in 1948, conventions have witnessed a similar, stultifying effect. The Republican convention of 1952, a riveting peek into the heart of the Republican Party, saw the isolationist and internationalist wings battle for control. The Democrats of 1956 saw a floor fight for the vice-presidential nominee.

However, 1952 was the last year that a convention went past the first ballot. Televised convention coverage has none of the thrills that occurred when each ballot had to be counted. Instead, most of the thrill in convention history since the fifties has happened outside of the arena, such as in the riots in Chicago in 1968.

The lack of interest in conventions can be seen in the declining TV attention. In 2000, despite the fact that the major networks ran nightly coverage of the convention, and the major cable news network devoted themselves to the affairs, only 16.1 million households tuned in on the average night. Expect that figure to drop this year, and for good reason.

Even though the parties will do their best to make it look like they are presenting their take on the big issues, the conventions are actually run to make sure absolutely nothing of interest will happen.

At the moment, barring an accident, scandal or a non-decisive primary campaign, the conventions have one active role -- assist donors in trashing the campaign finance laws. This year, some $108.5 million has been raised by the "host committee" for the convention work, all outside of the existing limit on campaign donations. Needless to say, the parties do not want attention drawn to this point.

So how can bloggers help revitalize this dusty, somewhat disreputable, relic? One way would be by giving voters a more candid look at the internal rumblings that the parties try to hide. There are always interesting stories occurring about the underpinnings of the parties. The conventions, where all the different branches of the party gather together and try to peacefully coexist, is a perfect spot to expose these fault lines. While newspapers and TV reporters do write these stories, the more interactive nature of the internet may be a more appropriate forum to expose potential schisms. Blogs with their avowed bias proudly showing -- just like the newspapers of the original conventions -- may be able to better highlight party trends than the "neutral" newspapers.

The odds are against bloggers having a real impact on the conventions. That the parties focus on stage-managing the whole affairs strongly suggests against anything revitalizing this failing institution. More importantly, without the role of picking nominees, the whole affair is lacking in drama. But the internet and blogs have surprised before. Perhaps they it can do it again.


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