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July 19, 2004

does anything happen at a convention?

As I recall, there's a passage in Don DeLillo's novel White Noise about the "most photographed barn in America." People go there because others do. You cannot see the actual barn, because it is surrounded by hordes of photographers, their cameras whirring and clicking. Their backs are the spectacle.

In one sense, modern (or should I say "post-modern"?) presidential nominating conventions are like that. Tens of thousands of people go because--tens of thousands of people go. Networks cover them because--so many important people are there. As Jay Rosen notes in Press Think: "nothing happens, as any reporter will tell you. But what does that mean: nothing happens? Nothing substantive. No new information revealed. Nothing said that hasn't been tested for acceptability to voters targeted long ago. No conflicts allowed, no intra-party debate. No surprises. No news. Just rah-rah and spectacle."

For Jay, this observation is itself a cliché, endlessly repeated by reporters eager to call the whole convention business (and campaigning generally) a sham. Jay quotes William Powers of the National Journal: "That's what modern presidential campaigns are, after all -- elaborately staged big-budget productions in which every line that's uttered, every piece of scenery, is carefully calculated to win over the public." Jay finds it "fascinating ... that journalists will still offer this observation today, at least twenty years after its SELL BY date, as if it they were tuned to something the rest of us did not grasp."

Once you think about it, a modern convention is fascinating, and something does happen there. But its interest isn't accessible if you look at politics in conventional terms, as a contest between two teams with contrasting personalities and proposals. From that point of view, it's unclear why reporters should cover the conventions at all. If either side gets a post-convention "bounce," it's arguably the result of press coverage, not of the convention itself. A responsible media outlet might choose to stay away from both parties' gatherings and use the same space to write about the substance of Social Security or Iraq.

But what if we see politics as ritual, spectacle, tradition, or even "convention" (in the broader sense)? Then we can ask: What do these ceremonies mean? Why do they linger past their original purpose? How does their symbolism change? Jay--more than half-seriously, I think--suggests that newspapers send their religion-beat reporters to the conventions this summer.

Posted by peterlevine at 2:04 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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