Nightline's Ted Koppel left the Republican convention in San Diego early, complaining that no news was happening. It's certainly true that little journalism was being practiced.
"This convention is more of an infomercial than a news event," Koppel pronounced (Nightline, 8/13/96), explaining his decision to go back to Washington after two days of on-site convention coverage. "Nothing surprising has happened; nothing surprising is anticipated."
Yes, the convention was choreographed and scripted, with any hint of a difference of opinion among the delegates carefully papered over. (Ironically, this homogeneity results in part from journalists' eagerness to label any sign of democratic discussion at a convention as a sign of weakness.)
But political conventions are still newsworthy events. If nothing else, they provide a perfect news peg for taking a critical look at the platforms and public pronouncements of the major parties, explaining to citizens where each might take the country. What could be a more important function for journalists?
But network reporters largely squandered the opportunities presented by the 1996 Republican convention. Instead of an independent look at the claims made at the podium--Would this program work? Do these numbers add up? Is that charge true?--what passed for hard-hitting coverage on TV was a reporter cornering a politician or delegate and asking them whether they were upset that their position on abortion had been slighted. ("No, I'm not" was the nearly universal response--not that "yes, I am" would be that much more enlightening.)
Trying to wring conflict out of Republican officials intent on unifying their party for the November election was a futile task. Yet the idea of interviewing people who would really take issue with the convention's message--maybe even some of the many protesters gathered outside the hall--seems to have been too obvious for most network producers.
Mostly, news outlets relied on their own anchors, reporters and in-house pundits to provide commentary on the convention--who seemed to generally operate on the principle that if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all. NPR's Nina Totenberg found Bob Dole "lovable" (8/13/96) and Jack Kemp "cute" (Inside Washington, 8/10/96), while Dan Rather fawned over "my fair Liddy" and her "tremendous" performance (8/14/96).
Since most nights the broadcast networks could only spare an hour out of their highly profitable schedules for the convention, there wasn't much time left over for analysis anyway. The big speeches were carefully timed to finish right at the end of prime time, leaving no time for much more than saying goodnight.
That's why Nightline, the only late-night network news show, could have played a vital role. Coming on half an hour after the big speeches ended, Koppel could have turned his whole show into a forum on the most important issues raised at the convention. Experts from across the political spectrum could have debated the effects of Dole's tax-cut proposals, or the likely effects of banning affirmative action, or the implications of providing vouchers for private schools.
What did Koppel do instead? The main guest on the first night of the convention was Newt Gingrich--what a refreshing break from an evening's worth of Republican spin. Predictably, Gingrich said nothing at all different from what the GOP's featured speakers had said all night. Despite Koppel's game efforts to trick him into going off message, Gingrich declined to admit that his feelings were hurt when he didn't get a more prominent speaking slot.
Following Gingrich was Republican pollster Frank Luntz, noted for providing highly misleading poll numbers to back up Gingrich's "Contract with America" (Miami Herald, 11/12/95). Nightline actually hired Luntz to do "instant audience response" polling: A focus group of undecided voters were given little dials that they could turn to indicate how pleased they were with what was being said at any given moment. The result of this twiddling was translated into a running graph, and the graph was then analyzed by Luntz.
What better symbol of the depths to which political reporting has fallen? Instead of providing citizens with information about candidates' policy proposals candidates, journalists now tell voters about their own instant responses to slogans, on a mindless 1 to 10 scale.