What I Learned at the Convention: My Brief Career As a Political Reporter
God, I hate to start this way, but…
Four decades ago (agghh!), I attended the Democratic National Convention as a reporter for my college newspaper and radio station. That was the year that Jimmy Carter was trying to hang on to his nomination in the face of Ted Kennedy’s lukewarm challenge at New York City’s Madison Square Garden.
In the previous months, I had covered the primary races through candidate whistle stops in the Seattle area (remember John Anderson? Yeah, I didn’t think so). I rode with local and national news personalities (Sam Donaldson. Anyone? Anyone?) and I felt like one of the “Boys on the Bus” (again. crickets.). This was just a few years after Woodward and Bernstein and Watergate, and a career in journalism looked sexy as hell.
By August, I was chomping at the bit to see how the primaries turned out. My stepsister offered her Greenwich Village apartment and the president of my college generously sprang for air fare. I spent the first day sitting in the hallway of a midtown hotel, waiting to apply for press credentials. After presenting a letter from the station manager, voila!, I had a lanyard with a press pass.
Outside of the hall, the networks set up massive trailers with python-like coils of electrical cords, satellite dishes, and noisy generators that occupied entire city blocks. Inside, each had built massive studios with platforms that extended out into the arena so that when the pundits and anchors were on camera, the floor of the convention was in plain view behind them. These were the sets, props, and technical tools needed to produce live theater. The convention started to look more like an entertainment spectacle and less like political party business.
The ramps normally used by sports fans to visit snack bars and rest rooms were converted into temporary offices, mostly for the networks and their production staff. Occasionally, there would be an impromptu press conference. Once, a prominent Democratic politician stopped to answer a few questions and instantly, a crowd of reporters swarmed ten-deep around him. I watched as Lesley Stahl raced out of the CBS makeshift offices and, as deftly as an eel moving through ocean rocks, worked her way to the front of the crowd and right into the face of the pol. The entire move took about 20 seconds, tops. She was my inspiration.
Early on, the lack of glamour in being among the press corps became obvious.To cover 5000 convention delegates, credentials were issued to 15,000 members of the press from around the world. Press to delegates ratio; three to one. This event wasn’t about finding stories, it seemed. More about bragging rights (“our local reporter is RIGHT THERE!”) and free stuff.
The convention staff issued daily agendas and there was usually a press reception catered by some PAC or corporation. These feedings were humiliating to watch. There was never enough food, and seeing photographers, writers, and camera operators descend on a bunch of dried up sandwiches like locust was depressing. Once, while the convention was in recess, I looked up from the main floor and saw Dave Horsey — Seattle Post-Intelligencer political cartoonist who would later win the Pulitzer Prize — sitting high up in one of the Garden’s orange plastic seats, drawing. I was envious of his solitude and his good judgement in separating himself from the pack.
And we were quite a herd. Back in Seattle during the primaries, we followed the same routine. The newsroom wire clacked out a bulletin announcing an appearance or a press conference and off we rushed. The faces were predictable: the over-eager nerdy guy with the mellifluous voice from KIRO Radio, the officious blonde in the oversized business suits from the suburban newspaper chain, the handsome curly-haired hotshot from KING-TV news (who died too young in a fall off of a mountainside) and, occasionally, a young reporter named Timothy Egan from the Seattle P-I.
After a few weeks, I discovered the source of what passed as “conventional political wisdom” — our own echo chamber. Like the Pick-A-Little-Talk-A-Little ladies in The Music Man, we constantly chatted and speculated while trying to scoop each other. But the candidate appearances were tightly controlled and the fodder was limited — the tedium of listening to the same stump speech over and over was mind-numbing. And this wasn’t our only job: we all covered multiple local beats, so digging into national politics was an add-on during an election cycle (except, maybe, for Egan). What we created out of our own chatter was not “fake news” but it was definitely manufactured by “groupthink.”
Back in New York, my new herd was more exciting. Once, a last-minute appearance was announced at another convention site and I had no cab fare. Standing on the sidewalk, I contemplated my next move when I heard a voice from inside a white van call out, “Do you need a ride? Get in!” Finding a clear space on the floor, I hopped on and we sped into the August night. These were career journalists who knew the absurdity of politics and covered it with a skeptical eye. They had better contacts and deeper knowledge and I loved to hear them talk. Eventually, though, I could tell their echo chamber operated the same as the local one did, only in bigger rooms with larger consequences.
At the end of each night of the convention, the CBS News Team would do an informal wrap-up of that day’s proceedings. Seated among the empty chairs on the convention floor, Harry Reasoner and Diane Sawyer casually summarized the day with anchor Dan Rather. Next to them were the sound man and another technician whose sole job was to hold a tall pole with something that looked like a yellow blow dryer on the top, but was in reality a satellite receiver that ensured a strong TV signal to the camera. The group let me sit nearby and I got to know the satellite guy, a career CBS employee who lived in Queens and endured the most boring job I could imagine. On the final night of coverage, I asked white-haired curmudgeon Harry Reasoner to autograph my press pass. “Just put, ‘thanks for last night’,” I teased. Harry did not respond, but he did sign his name.
So, today, when I see Trump supporters boo at the press corps or when I hear the term “fake news,” I know firsthand how fragile the media’s relationship with the public is and how easily it can be exploited. The 1980 convention was the splash of cold water I needed to stop idealizing political reporting: if it is done well, it is a grind. Important stories won’t be found on the convention floor, but through long hours on the telephone, over drinks in a hotel bar with inside sources, or backstage among campaign staffers. Excellent reporting requires experience, knowledge, and connections; a willingness to turn over rocks and find new angles. Lazy reporting only needs conformity and repetition; being a locust at the sandwich table or filling the airwaves with regurgitated press releases or talking points pumped out of a fax machine.
Today, when I consume political reporting, I watch for patterns — repeated ideas, pernicious rumors, distracting shiny objects, doublespeak — and I ignore them. Those are the sandwich locusts. Instead, I look for the reporting that comes from high above, like a Dave Horsey who stands alone with a unique perspective, or a Timothy Egan, who rarely follows the pack and does the grueling homework. That’s where the real news comes from, not from the convention floor.
#politics #lifelessons #DNC2020