Covering the Convention

Bill McConnell reports from the Democrats' get-together in Boston

Has Nightline
anchor Ted Koppel changed his mind about the news value of political conventions? This year, Koppel is devoting a full production team to covering the political conventions. Viewers may recall that this is the same newsman who pulled out of the 1996 GOP convention because it was so choreographed and, a few weeks later, skipped the Democrats' convention entirely. He devoted only a skeleton crew to the 2000 conventions.

"All the points I made back in '96 are still legitimate," he insisted last week at the Democratic convention in Boston. "I don't take back a thing." Koppel said he "struggled desperately" to find an alternative this year, planning at one point to travel to a big swing state to gauge reaction there. In the end, attending the conventions seemed the best choice.

"Ignoring precisely what's happening here is not that difficult, but ignoring what surrounds it is
increasingly difficult," he said. Rather than analyze the speeches and pro forma nomination votes, Koppel spent a day with the Boston police department examining the threat of convention terrorism, trailed Michael Moore (whom he labeled the "anti-podium speaker") and examined the media's role in campaign coverage. "We all know there is no news happening. We're not really covering the convention as such but these more interesting—and in some ways more important—stories."

What does he think of ABC colleague Peter Jennings' airing old-fashioned gavel-to-gavel daily coverage on a digital channel and the Web? "We are all struggling to find the right piece in this new media world," Koppel says. "People are trying to access news in a different way. We have to adapt to the new media that are going carry us."

When it comes to the convention ratings battle, no contortion of the data is too extreme to claim victory. Through Thursday night, CBS, CNN and NBC were all claiming victory in some way. The four nights of convention coverage gave CNN a rare ratings win among cable news channels, with an average 2.3 million viewers in prime time. Fox News averaged 2.1 million viewers, and third-placed MSNBC trailed with an average 1.3 million viewers.

On the convention's closing night, with presidential nominee John Kerry at the podium, CBS was most-watched with 5.55 million viewers. No doubt, CBS's coverage got a boost from its lead-in, CSI. NBC followed with 5.35 million viewers that night, and ABC attracted 4.75 million. NBC did win Wednesday's 10-11 p.m. slot with 4.2 million viewers.

CNN was the most-watched cable news channel Thursday night, with 2.66 million viewers, narrowly beating Fox News' 2.51 million viewers. Republican-friendly Fox attributed CNN's edge last week to the large numbers of Democrats in the network's core audience.

Fox News' Tuesday-night edition of The O'Reilly Factor, when Bill O'Reilly squared off with filmmaker Michael Moore, attracted 3 million viewers, making it the week's second-most-watched cable program behind CNN's coverage of the Kerry speech.

ABC News anchor Peter Jennings called NBC rival Tom Brokaw twice last Monday to smooth over any hard feelings generated by his remarks during a Harvard University panel discussion on TV political coverage the day before. During the Harvard talk, Jennings touted ABC's new digital campaign channel, which offered him the opportunity to provide gavel-to-gavel convention coverage while other broadcast nets offered only one hour of nightly coverage. ' 'Perhaps, for Tom, it's as much a social occasion as it is for some of the delegates," Jennings said. Brokaw, who actually would spend much of his time reporting for sister cable net MSNBC, dismissed Jennings' efforts to reach the "two-person" DTV audience. A New York Times
piece characterized the exchange as a testy one between rivals with "different philosophies about the political conventions." When Jennings called, Brokaw assured him he didn't take Jennings' comments seriously.

Barack Obama was the hit of the convention Tuesday night, sparking news-show speculation that the Illinois state senator and U.S. Senate candidate will be the Democratic party's next big star. Talking off-camera while preparing for Wednesday's American Morning, CNN host Bill Hemmer and guest Al Franken agreed that Obama started too slow but warmed up as the speech went on. Said Franken, "I thought he stepped on his applause lines."

Media conglomerates and other corporations are sponsoring hundreds of parties for both Democrats and Republicans at this summer's conventions. For the most part, the events fall into two categories: raucous, star-studded blowouts or blandly polite wine-and-cheese affairs. Rarely are they political pep rallies. So officials from Comcast and New England Cable News must have been a little surprised when Rep. Ed Markey, Sen. Ted Kennedy and the other guests of honor turned a sedate event into an opportunity to roast the Bush White House at a reception honoring Massachusetts lawmakers.

Shortly after being introduced by Comcast Executive Vice President David Cohen, Markey vowed that Democratic candidate John Kerry would issue pink slips to top ranks of the Bush Administration come January. "The first person he will show the door is John Ashcroft!" Markey yelled. "Dick Cheney, you're fired! Donald Rumsfeld, you're fired! Paul Wolfowitz, you're fired! Colin Powell, you're fired! Condoleezza Rice, you're fired! And especially, George W. Bush, fired!" About a quarter of the crowd joined Markey in the refrain, "You're fired!" But most attendees ignored the polemics and continued yakking and sipping drinks.

After Markey finished, Zenith spokesman John Taylor quipped to his companions: "I counted six times he will have to pay royalties to Donald Trump."

CNN scored a coup over network rivals by winning approval to build its set on the convention floor. But hosting a full schedule of talk shows over speeches blaring on the P.A. and the din of delegates required cumbersome new technology that frayed nerves. As guests were hustled on-and-off the stage, they to be outfitted with microphones featuring noise-blocking plugs in both ears and a mouthpiece. CNN crews need several minutes to prep guests, rather than the seconds required for the usual clip-on mikes. When much-in-demand John Kerry daughter Vanessa showed up late Tuesday night for an interview, anchor Anderson Cooper desperately motioned for a handheld mike to be at the ready in case she wasn't prepped before the net returned from commercial. She made it with a couple of seconds to spare.

Network rivals were buzzing in the control-room trailers over Fox News Channel's decision to skip speeches by Al Gore and Jimmy Carter. What did the team at Fox deem more compelling than the 2000 Democratic standard bearer and a Nobel laureate? Gore's self-depreciating, mildly amusing talk was passed over for an interview with '80s rocker Joan Jett. Carter was shunned for a Sean Hannity interview with former Democratic hopeful Howard Dean and an Alan Colmes chat with former Secretary of Education and moralist William Bennett.

Reporters pretend to be nonchalant about a terrorism threat made against media covering the conventions, but a newsroom full of journalists got a little jumpy when a loud "boom" rocked their work area, located just off the Fleet Center's floor. The sonic jolt occurred midway through opening-night festivities. Reporters stopped tapping on laptops, looked nervously at each other, then eyed convention staffers for some explanation. After no word of assurance (or alarm) arrived, they went back to filing their stories. "Am I the only one who heard that?" asked one puzzled scribe to no one in particular.