My first political convention was in 1964, when Democrats convened in Atlantic City, N.J., to nominate Lyndon Johnson for a full term as president. I was a young copyboy at the NBC News network bureau in Washington, D.C. We arrived from Washington aboard a chartered DC-3 plane that also carried anchor-reporter Frank McGee and his wife.
Emotions were still raw from the assassination of President Kennedy only nine months before. A floor battle over the seating of the delegation from Mississippi added to the drama and public interest. The “Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party,” which was integrated, demanded to replace the all-white elected delegates on the grounds that blacks had been excluded from voting in the Mississippi primaries. A compromise was reached, and that convention marked the last time Democrats would accept segregated delegations.
In 1964, the TV networks considered the process of nominating a presidential candidate so important to the country that all three carried the proceedings virtually “gavel to gavel.” Even the platform committee hearings of both parties were covered, sometimes live.
I mention this to note how little of this year’s conventions are being covered by the broadcast networks. Their arguments are familiar: The conventions have become scripted events that serve as infomercials for the two parties, and they rarely make news; anyone interested in watching the conventions for longer periods than the one prime-time hour a night the broadcast networks give them can watch cable; real political junkies can switch to C-SPAN, where they can watch these political telethons until the final gavel falls.
There is even talk about doing away with these three-day political extravaganzas – or at least shortening them to a day and a night to attract more viewers. Saving money and time is also a consideration. It’s a good idea, and the old convention model almost surely will be put to rest after this year.
Whether the restructuring happens in 2016, or later, by deciding to broadcast so little of the conventions this year the networks send the message to the public that the gatherings are unimportant.
Few enough people are engaged in the political process. Cynicism deepens when TV networks join the ranks of the cynics and send a message that since so many Americans don’t care about politics, the broadcast networks don’t either, and so let’s give the people what they want: more crime and slime. The political ads will play and replay at the commercial breaks, but the ads are fast food compared with live political TV.
There have been many suggestions for how to improve the drama and interest of these quadrennial affairs. Since television and the political process are joined at the hip, broadcasters especially have a responsibility to help make them more compelling. If NBC, for example, can spend millions to cover the Olympics, blocking off hours of prime time for track and field and swimming events, is it too much to ask all the networks to devote time to something far more important to every American and the world?
Broadcasters use public airwaves and make a lot of money from them. Because of that, and because networks are run by Americans, they have a duty to perform in the public interest. Carrying just one hour a night of each convention is a dereliction of that duty.