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Published: Tuesday, 8/3/2004

Conventional approach to democracy

BY GREG VICTOR
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE

RIDICULING modern political party conventions is great sport, and every American patriot has done it at one time or another.

So let's get started

They're boring because the presidential and vice presidential nominees are chosen long before the conventions convene. There's no suspense, no waiting to see who gets voted off the island (ticket).

They are nothing more than four-day infomercials, gab fests for political hacks in party hats, awesome sales opportunities for balloon and button vendors, awesome lobbying opportunities for special interests wielding fat wallets and fancy receptions.

They are media feeding frenzies at which journalists, bloggers, and other assorted busybodies outnumber conventioneers by 3-1 - probably because there's so much free food.

So why did The Blade, and its sister newspaper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, send to the Democratic convention in Boston six reporters, two photographers, a cartoonist, and a publisher and editor-in-chief? At considerable expense.

And why did we add two extra open pages in the paper each day and provide ongoing Web site updates for convention coverage? Also at considerable expense.

And why will we send a similar contingent and provide similar coverage when the Republicans convene in New York at the end of the month?

It's a mystery to me.

And I mean that literally, not cynically.

But first

There are plenty of solid civic and journalistic reasons for providing serious coverage of the Democratic and Republican conventions. Among them:

Even in a divisive, hotly contested election year like this one, the conventions are the first time many voters, especially undecided voters, begin to focus on what they really think of the candidates for president and vice president.

The conventions give the candidates a chance to make their best arguments, and they give many Americans their first look at the candidates delivering serious speeches crafted to convey who they are, what they believe, and what they plan to do if elected.

It's hard to think of anything more important for The Blade to cover than a defining event of a presidential election in the wake of 9/11, in the midst of a controversial war in Iraq, and in the light of a blue-ribbon commission report that finds the nation under continuing threat of a major terrorist attack but ill-prepared to stop it.

No wonder 63 percent of Americans think it really matters who wins the presidential election this year, compared with 45 percent who expressed that view in June, 2000, according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

Despite the Madison Avenue stagecraft and the speech-vetting aimed at keeping everyone on message, the conventions provide insight into what each party stands for and what internal pressures will mount on a successful candidate in office. Party factions and personalities spend the four days vying for influence, camera time, a line or two in the platform.

Journalists can help explain this jockeying and how it might constrain a president's freedom of action.

And this is where the mystery comes in. The democratic process is a mysterious thing, involving countless players and factors. It is difficult for both journalists and citizens to fully comprehend. Covering the conventions helps.

America's big-tent political parties are vast coalitions of interest groups and points of view, as opposed to the more ideologically narrow parties of most parliamentary systems. There are blacks and whites and Hispanics and others, corporations and unions, farmers and steelworkers, Christians and Muslims and Jews and atheists, men and women and the transgendered.

When the parties gather all of their diverse core constituents in a single big building every four years, along with myriad outsiders who seek to influence them, a certain alchemy takes place that can be fully appreciated only by being on the scene.

Sending journalists to the national conventions is like sending them on assignment to a seemingly strange far-off land.

If you've been to a foreign country, try to recall your first visit, and the difference between reading about it and being there to hear the cadence of the language, to see the body language of the people, to smell the aromas that arise from the street stalls, to feel the dry crack of the desert or the moist embrace of the rainforest.

By attending the national political conventions this year, our reporters and photographers and cartoonists and editors can get a visceral understanding of where the parties and their candidates stand as they prepare to face off in the fall campaign for control of the most powerful nation on Earth at a time of national peril.

It is an understanding they could not get sitting in Toledo - although the presidential candidates will certainly spend time there - and it is one that we hope they convey with depth and balance for our readers at convention time and throughout the election.

At this particular moment, though, it's time for the The Blade's intrepid Boston conventioneers to take a break. To digest all that they've learned and all that free food.

Then it's on to New York and the Republican National Convention, where the torch will be marched up the steps of Madison Square Garden on Aug. 30 and the announcer will intone, "Let the games begin!"

Oops.

Wrong sport.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Greg Victor is Nation/World Editor for the Post-Gazette.

Contact Greg Victor at:

gvictor@post-gazette.com

or 412-263-1570.



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