The obscene media spectacle of national political conventions
I'm at the media tent on the third day of the Democratic National Convention, charging my phone and laptop, when there's a sudden commotion at the door. Rumor has it that prominent Bernie Sanders supporter Nina Turner is en route to speak to the assembled press, and there's an instant pack of journalists surrounding whoever just showed up, phones, cameras, and audio recorders at the ready.
After some time, the crowd clears out a bit, and it turns out it's only Danny Glover.
Soon enough, the show moves to an impromptu stage, where a series of Sanders surrogates talk to a huge crush of journalists. Reporters surround the speaker on foot, with a second thick rank surrounding them standing on chairs, and even a few standing on a table to the side. I count something like 20 high-end video cameras, and probably three times that number of people streaming on Periscope or Facebook Live with their phones. I can't possibly see what is happening, but word gets around that there are celebs — celebs! — at the center. Susan Sarandon? Shailene Woodley? Rosario Dawson?
What did they say? It seems they expressed displeasure that Turner wasn't allowed to address the convention, contrary to Sanders' wishes. Turner herself never actually got on stage, but she did talk to some other Bernie people there, before having to practically shove her way out past journalists barking questions at her like she was under indictment for war crimes.
So: Something like 100 professional journalists, tens of thousands of dollars of expensive electronics, and a terrific load on the local cell phone data networks, all to produce massively redundant coverage of a tiny piece of political ephemera that was almost instantly forgotten. Fantastic!
Covering the DNC was an interesting experience. I tried my best to dig out some of the undercovered little tidbits where I could, and I think I succeeded reasonably well. But still, I have never in my life felt more profoundly useless. Everything — the protests, the side events, and above all the convention itself — had reporters crawling over it like maggots on a ripe piece of roadkill. I went to an obscure meeting of democratic socialists, and there were reporters from The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, Dissent, and the Texas Observer — and those are just the ones I personally recognized. At many events, reporters were easily the majority of people in attendance.
The resources devoted to journalism at the convention were mind-boggling. There were two gigantic media tents the size of airplane hangers, one for private jets and one for full-size airliners, heavily air-conditioned against the oppressive heat, rigged up with power and internet. Free food and drink were everywhere, if you could land an invitation to one of the corporate bribery events (er, showcases for innovative American businesses), or talk your way into one of the media parties put on by Facebook, Twitter, and other companies.
In the real world, times are really hard for pretty much every media organization. The New York Times recently went through yet another round of buyouts. Gawker is still under siege from a reactionary billionaire. The International Business Times recently laid off over 30 staffers — after which, unable to get straight answers on health insurance and other questions, the former reporters coordinated a public protest online. They described pitiful or no severance, many overseas employees that had not been paid in weeks, and other abuses.
TV viewership is in structural decline. Print circulation is continually headed downward. The whole online journalism industry seems perched on a precipice, to a great extent at the mercy of social media titans like Facebook that couldn't care less about quality reporting. A single tweak in the almighty News Feed algorithm, and disaster strikes.
Convention coverage gets a lot of attention. It drives ratings and traffic and newsstand sales. Otherwise, so many publications would not devote such resources to it.
But there is absolutely no question in my mind that the whole convention would have been covered precisely as well by a few dozen reporters and a handful of TV news hosts as it was in reality covered by the roughly 15,000 journalists who were credentialed to attend. That it was not speaks to the grim reality of a business in which swarms of reporters must chase any sort of faux-exclusive trivia, regardless of the tremendous duplication of effort.