When you think of convention coverage, your first thought is Walter Cronkite, in black and white. Those were the days when floor fights involved more than just twentysomething bloggers arguing over which cocktail lounge serves the best Cosmo.
Convention coverage — and indeed, campaign coverage in general — has kept pace with with our electronically charged times. Shorter attention spans, widespread Internet access on ever-improving gadgetry, creative takes on traditional subject matter, the spin-and-slam tactics of strategists from both sides of the aisle, and the popularity of punditry on cable television, all have contributed to altering the landscape of coverage of politics in an election year.
Given that just about anyone with a Blackberry can tap out a brief opinion, put it online in seconds, and call himself an expert quicker than anyone can question his credentials, does experience matter anymore when it comes to convention and campaign coverage?
Americans listened to Cronkite, and Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, and Dan Rather, and Tom Brokaw, and others like them, because we trusted that they were seasoned journalists who knew what they were doing. That may still be important to many, but others are following these events from sources with questionable credentials. That’s not to say that bloggers are unqualified for the assignment simply because they’re bloggers. But there are so many of them, and they can’t all be Walter Cronkite.
“It depends on the story you want,” said Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun-Times. The paper’s Washington bureau chief, she’s been covering politics in the nation’s capitol since 1993, and before that she wrote about politics in and around Chicago for many years.
“I would use a sports analogy,” Sweet continued. “If you had me cover the World Series, my first story might be amusing. But for the rest of the games, people might want to find out what was going on in the dugout, in the locker room, on the field. That’s the same for political coverage.
“Somebody who doesn’t cover politics on a regular basis might provide the side dish, but not the main entrée.”
There is no substitute for experience when it comes to developing sources and obtaining information at conventions, Sweet said. “If you have somebody out there who doesn’t know the people involved and doesn’t know the players or the deputies or the campaign managers standing next to them in the lunch line, then you lose something,” she said.
Casual vs. engaged viewerSteve Barkan is a senior strategist for SG&A Campaigns, a political consulting firm based in Pasadena, Calif. He has witnessed enormous changes over the last 20 years or so, which he attributes to the rise in cable coverage of politics. But he emphasized that not all viewers are alike.
“There is an important distinction between the casual viewer and the engaged viewer,” he said. “Engaged viewers, beginning in 1988 and 1992, could watch every moment of the convention if they desired. Casual viewers watched only what happened to come before them in prime time, such as two or three key speeches and the official vote.
“Today, the engaged viewer has increased, in large part because of the Internet. Engaged viewers have greater access to schedules on the Internet. But more importantly, there is so much build-up for a wider variety of activities.”
And just as all television programs are not alike — consider “Generation Kill” vs. “Gossip Girl,” for instance, or, better yet, “The O’Reilly Factor” vs. “Countdown With Keith Olbermann.” Not all conventions and campaigns are equal.
“This is no ordinary election,” Barkan said, “in large part due to the changing demographics and the younger voter. The level of civic dialogue — in the workplace, on the Internet, in the neighborhood — has increased dramatically. And every year, more and more voters are actively seeking information about politics on the Internet.”
Obviously, it wasn’t always this way. Back in 1996, when the Internet was just dawning but cable TV was cooking, Robin Abcarian had a different experience in covering the Republican convention in San Diego.
“The pace then not only seemed a lot slower, as I recall, (but) at least one or two network anchors pulled up stakes and left San Diego early because there was ‘no news,’” recalled Abcarian, a veteran Los Angeles Times reporter and columnist who contributes to the paper’s “Top of the Ticket” campaign blog.
“This time, of course, there is such intense interest in the conventions for a number of reasons — no incumbent is running, Obama’s candidacy is historic, and McCain is a fascinating figure. No one would dream of leaving early.”
Campaigning at blog speedThere is little doubt that bloggers have a powerful influence on the dialogue in national politics. Their numbers are staggering, and their impact is felt year-round, but especially in the lead-up to, and the aftermath of, significant political events.
“Blogging has helped accelerate and compress the news cycle,” said politico.com blogger Ben Smith, “making the 24-hour cable cycle look leisurely. It’s forced the campaigns to respond within minutes, not hours, to everything. It’s also added a velocity to items that, while not world-shaking, are interesting or novel in a way that causes them to spread across the blogosphere.”
Said Barkan: “I think bloggers have a bigger impact by driving engaged viewers to what they want to see. Do they have an impact on the content over the air or on cable? My guess is yes, because, for example, MSNBC — an interactive source — has the ability to monitor ‘netroots’ interest in any number of convention components, spin, angles, human interest, etc.”
He added that Internet users seeking information about politics still go to sources they trust, and in that regard, experience still matters. “Instead of Walter Cronkite providing context to the broadest possible audience and providing a sense of national community,” he said, “we have thousands of others providing an editor function.”
And here’s one other major development brought about by bloggers: They’ve caused more and more mainstream journalists to become bloggers themselves. Like the L.A. Times’ Abcarian, the Sun-Times’ Sweet writes a lively blog about politics in addition to her duties as a reporter. In these cases, readers get the best of both worlds — old-school journalistic experience mixed with new-age technology, insight and style.
“We are feeding the online beast 24/7,” said Abcarian, “and frankly it makes it a lot more fun and interesting for both newsgatherers and readers.”
“I’ve become part of the Web world,” Sweet confessed.
In coverage of politics these days, just about everybody has.
Michael Ventre is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com. He lives in Los Angeles.