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July 28, 2004

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Democrats’ Messages Come Through Clear -- And Happy

By Ferrel Guillory
Wednesday, July 28, 2004

RALEIGH, N.C. – Here in John Edwards’ home town, 712 miles from Boston’s Fleet Center, the central messages delivered at the podium on the first night of the Democratic National Convention passed through the news-media filter with hardly an adulteration.

The decision by the three commercial networks to limit prime-time coverage to an hour has diminished reporting and commentary. The networks' decision has several consequences. The Democrats received an hour to pack its most potent messengers and messages. Thus, there were two kinds of journalism on commercial television -- both inadequate. The cable networks and public broadcasting featured panels of punditry of uneven quality. Public Broadcasting Service had a dual panel of journalists and historians with sober analysis. The commercial cable networks placed more emphasis on their own pundits than the views of the real-life politicians around them in the convention hall.

On network and local television and in newspapers across the South, interested citizens heard clearly what big-time Democrats vouched for in their 2004 nominee John Kerry: He possessed courage and judgment forged in battle in Vietnam, and his priorities contrasted sharply with those of the incumbent Republican administration.

“Party’s Stars Embrace Ticket,” said the headline of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Democrats looked “so uncharacteristically harmonious and disciplined that they almost seemed like Republicans” as they “aimed mostly at moderate swing voters,” reported Adam C. Smith, the political editor of the St. Petersburg Times.

The networks could hardly take their cameras off the proceedings featuring former President Jimmy Carter, U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and former President Bill Clinton, as well as a haunting rendition of “Amazing Grace’’ by a 16-year-old violin soloist. Thus, there was little time for celebrity anchors and even less for the reporters dispersed through the convention hall.

Clinton’s speech ended at just about 11 p.m., the time for local news programs on the East Coast to break in. The networks had just a few moments to dissect and analyze the former president’s performance. NBC’s Tim Russert noted that Clinton had pointed to himself as among the wealthy who received Bush-inspired tax cuts and as among those who had avoided military service in Vietnam. Russert proclaimed it a “very clever speech.”

Barely had Clinton finished waving to the crowd when WRAL-TV, a CBS affiliate and the top-rated station in the Raleigh-Durham, N.C., market, broadcast a live report from its chief anchor, David Crabtree. Stationed near the North Carolina delegation on the Fleet Center floor, he quickly interviewed three Democrats, including state party chair Barbara Allen. Not surprisingly, they hailed Clinton’s message. Delicately alluding to Clinton’s sexual dalliance in office, Allen added that, while many Democrats “didn’t like what he [Clinton] did personally,’’ the country was “better off’’ under his eight years in the White House.

WRAL’s chief competitor station, Durham-based ABC affiliate WTVD-TV, broadcast a more generic report, focusing on the Clinton speech. WTVD-TV's report also included the comment that the convention promised “four nights of party unity and partying.”
Aside from vouching for Kerry, two additional messages have swept through the news coverage of the convention:

-- Boston has so many bomb-sniffing dogs and so much chain-link fence that the site is just short of an armed camp.

-- Despite the heavy security, delegates are having a splendid time.

This is especially so for the North Carolina delegation. As a result of Kerry’s choosing Edwards as his running mate, the state's delegation now has prime front-of-the-hall seats -- a development much remarked upon in the state’s news media. “N.C. Delegates Getting First-Class Treatment,” said a headline in the Winston-Salem Journal.

The News & Observer, the newspaper delivered to Edwards’ Raleigh home each morning, had two front-page stories focusing equally on the convention proceedings and the senator’s preparation for his speech on Wednesday accepting the vice presidential nomination.

North Carolina newspapers and TV stations have noted an ancillary development: That Democratic Gov. Mike Easley and Democratic Senate candidate Erskine Bowles, both facing election campaigns this year in a state that has voted Republican in every presidential race since 1976, have remained in North Carolina rather than join in the festivities in Boston -- fearing the dreaded Massachusetts-liberal label.

Ferrel Guillory is director of the Program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and former editorial page editor of the News & Observer.

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