Twenty-four years ago this month, the Republicans staged a political convention and ABC’s Ted Koppel refused to cover it.
“This convention is more of an infomercial than a news event,” complained Koppel, one day into the 1996 GOP gathering at San Diego. Koppel, then in his 18th year as the anchor of Nightline, had brought a full crew to the convention, where Bob Dole, who had wrapped up the party’s nomination months earlier, would formally accept. Koppel didn’t wait around long enough to hear Dole speak. “Nothing surprising has happened,” he declared as he packed up to leave. “Nothing surprising is anticipated.”
Koppel’s walkout was only the most extreme expression of the TV networks’ longstanding hostility to political conventions. Every four years the old debate gets revived about whether TV networks should bother covering them.
It wasn’t always this way. In the early days of television, when a cigarette company was the major sponsor of one network newscast and cameras were only slightly more wieldy than a Sherman tank, TV loved the conventions. They were easy to cover and offered lots of built-in drama. Delegates might show up not knowing who the nominee would be, or there might a floor fight over credentials. Something was always happening. The 1948 Democratic convention was so raucous that the nominee, Harry Truman, wasn’t given the podium until 2 a.m., whereupon he delivered one of the most rousing political speeches of all time to whoever was still up watching TV.
And so it went for two decades, with the conventions going on as though the cameras weren’t even there. Then in 1968, the parties got a startling lesson in what politicos these days call “optics.” Conventions could project very good optics or, in the case of the Democrats that year, they could be very bad — not only the live coverage of police beating the crap out of peaceful protesters in Chicago’s Grant Park, but also the violence inside the convention hall, with TV reporters being shoved around by what Walter Cronkite aptly called “a bunch of thugs.” The GOP, meanwhile, projected a message of law-and-order that was reflected in the convention’s disciplined, efficient production. Hubert Humphrey lost that November to Richard Nixon by a razor-thin margin, and it wasn’t hard to figure out why.
For 1972 the Republicans hired a convention manager named Bill Timmons, who scripted the convention down to the second, giving the cameras plenty to cover other than the protests happening outside. Nixon’s coronation (slogan: “Now More Than Ever”) became a television variety-show extravaganza, with something for everyone, even the ladies. Anne Armstrong was the first female keynoter at any party’s convention, and the First Lady addressed the delegates, another first — take that, Gloria Steinem! Nixon won re-election that November, and conventions were never the same rowdy affairs again.
Is this so horrible? I’ve always thought it the height of chutzpah for TV news people, whose programs are highly-produced showcases scripted down to the second, to be bellyaching that the conventions are highly-produced showcases scripted down to the second. Since 1980 there’s been a variation on this argument: If people want to watch the conventions, let them watch CNN, and later MSNBC and Fox. Indeed, ABC, CBS, and NBC networks have all greatly reduced their prime-time convention coverage over the years, so much so that in 2004, none of the networks aired the speech by a little-known Illinois state senator named Barack Obama that lit a fire under the delegates and launched a future president into orbit.
There’s only one problem with this argument. It presumes that over-the-air television stations do not have any unique role in informing a democratic nation. In fact, television stations are unique because their licenses are granted by the federal government, which extracts a promise from the station owners that they’ll serve the public interest at least a little bit.
I’ve always thought TV stations did very little election coverage in relation to the amount of money they raked in during election season. And ABC, CBS, and NBC all own TV stations in the biggest and most lucrative markets. I can assure you that in 1996 the ABC-owned stations made enough profit on politics ads to pay Ted Koppel’s salary several times over. They were already in the infomercial business whether he liked it or not.
The job of fact-checking all those ads, however, mostly fell on local TV stations and websites. Big-shot network anchors rarely got their hands dirty with such plebeian public service work. You might as well have asked Dan Rather or Tom Brokaw to examine the claims in a Viagra ad. But that was then. Today, when people are being flooded with spurious messages across all forms of media — usually paid for by shadowy PACs that don’t have to reveal their funding sources — the need for professional journalists with large platforms and high standards has never been greater.
The good news is that there has not been this much interest in an election in my lifetime. I have no better idea than you do what these political conventions will look like. But they could be broadcast from atop a building in downtown Albuquerque and tens of millions would watch. And given the precarious nature of facts these days, I think you will see the networks cover these conventions with more journalistic enterprise than in previous years. Americans don’t need tiresome horse-race coverage. They need speeches fact-checked, platforms picked apart, politicians kept honest. Networks have the throw-weight to do that and can command audiences that Sean Hannity can only dream of.
They say that COVID will change a lot of things permanently. I hope it changes the networks’ complacency toward the political conventions.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.