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July 26, 2004

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The Media Circus Begins

By Ellen Hume and the
Media Nation Staff
Monday, July 26, 2004



Journalists and their equipment are searched by uniformed Secret Service agents at the so called 'hard line' outside the Fleet Center.
MediaNation Photo by Carl Brooks

BOSTON—The world’s news media have descended on Boston, outnumbering delegates at the Democratic National Convention by three to one. Only about half of the purported 15,000 credentialed media are actually working as journalists.

The big three television networks are grumpy about spending something like $5 million apiece to send 300 plus staffers here for what they call a public relations exercise. It’s been 32 years since a Democratic Convention offered any real political drama. This week, a Pew Research Center study found that only 36% of the Americans polled are interested in the convention, compared with 53% in 1992.

“I’d like to revert [some money] to the war in Iraq,” says Bill Wheatley, vice president of NBC News. His network reportedly has spent about $25 million on covering the war and its aftermath, including more than $2 million on insurance alone. PBS’s Jim Lehrer passionately disagrees. “We’re going to have four of the eight most important days of the year,” he said during a Sunday panel at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.

As everyone was arriving, the media were busy covering other media. Bloggers were everyone’s favorite story. These cool new kids on the block included Jesse Taylor of Watertown, Mass., who typically works in gym shorts but bought a $400 suit for the occasion.

Mike McCurry, who won the respect of journalists when he wrangled with them as President Clinton’s press secretary, was among those singing the praises of the newest tribe. “Internet blogging is becoming for the Democrats what talk radio was for the Republicans,” he said at the media party. “The blogosphere is center left. The world of the Internet and electronjic activism is not Republican.” Two exceptions are the Christian Coalition and the National Rifle Association, he said. “But they have not found an Internet voice.” CNN senior analyst Jeff Greenfield is another great fan of the bloggers.

Liberal media icon Victor Navasky, publisher and editorial director of The Nation, said that bloggers shouldn't be lumped together with journalists because 'they don't check facts.'"I don't get it" about blogging, he confessed, but he conceded that these personalized accounts are important. The blogosphere "is to television and newspapers what paperbacks are to hardcover books, not what movies were to radio," he said Saturday at the opening media party. "They're going to augment journalism, not replace it."

Even if reporters are short on real news these days, these conventions -- Democrat and Republican -- serve another purpose: They’re a gathering of the media tribes, a reunion of the old news warriors and a rite of passage for the new ones. Around their necks are the talismans of their trade: the media credentials given out by six separate governing bodies -- no one of them powerful enough to own a master list.

In closets, pockets and bags are stowed their gadgets: biohoods and Hazmat suits, MobiTV phones (ABC) and Blackberrys (everyone else), all so the media can survive the terrorists and always be in touch with each other and God, otherwise known as the news desk.

Ironically, at a time when journalists are barely functioning as the gatekeepers of news, a huge walled city has been constructed to contain them. “Mag Village” is named after magnetic security devices at the gates that scan imbedded wires in press credentials. The village looks like a medieval court teeming with jugglers (“on the one hand, on the other hand”) heralds, jesters (Jon Stewart and Al Franken), plotters (the partisan press), alchemists and thieves (who gleefully repeat other peoples’ content as if it were their own).

In separate warrens of the Media Pavilion connected by narrow corridors, editors and techies huddle in twos and threes, looking into their communication devices and muttering in strange dialects. All of them seem to be saying approximately the same thing: “You’re breaking up.”

Construction workers apply the final polish to television network anchor booths overlooking the Fleet Center floor.
MediaNation Photo by Sarah M. J. Welch

It is a prime setup for mischief, with so many journalists from around the world looking for something -- anything -- exclusive to spotlight. This puts significant power in the hands of potential troublemakers, including not just expected protesters but also, it seems, the police themselves. The pro-GOP Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association was weighing Sunday whether to continue its “informational” pickets to frighten away Democratic partisans.

Just in time for the arrival of the press, the Boston FBI office warned that a domestic terrorist group might bomb the media trailers. Although some local journalists went big with the story, the man in charge of security at the convention, Boston Police Supt. Robert Dunford, advised Media Nation on Saturday that that particular tip may not have been credible. The terrorist threat remains a source of some concern but also considerable machismo for the tribes of scribblers, technicians, shooters, pundits, keyboard jockeys and geeks. Time magazine isn’t taking any chances; it brought two Hazmat suits and backup beepers if the cell phones go out. Some local tv stations brought smokehoods. Chicago Tribune reporter Ellen Warren lived up to her town’s bare- knuckle reputation; her bosses went to the personal safety training, but she had better things to do.

Far more serious, some said, is the political pressure journalists feel these days as they’re working. “Fear has increased in every newsroom in America. When you point out the facts, you catch hell,” said Dan Rather at the Shorenstein Center’s star-studded panel discussion on Sunday.

“The pressure was always there, but the mechanics are more efficient now. They hit a switch and we get thousands of e-mails,” agreed Tom Brokaw. The anxiety has “had an effect on the corporate suites,” Peter Jennings noted. “I hear more about conservative concerns than ever.”

Nevertheless, the tribes were happy to see each other. The rank and file met up at the opening party Saturday night, swapping gossip near the Ferris wheel inside Boston’s cavernous new Convention Center. The grand poohbahs and bigfeet of political media went to private parties such as CBS political chief Dotty Lynch’s birthday celebration on a yacht in the harbor. But on Sunday morning they turned out in force for the Harvardpanel -- and were looking forward to the most important media appointment in town Sunday night: the Red Sox- Yankees game at Fenway Park.






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