Washington Babylon — August 25, 2008, 5:28 am

Your Essential Guide to the Political Conventions

Change a few names and places, and this wonderful piece in the Weekly Standard by Andrew Ferguson is just as perfect in August of 2008 as it was when he originally wrote it in August of 2004:

Complaining about the empty ritual of the press complaining about the “empty rituals” that conventions have become has now become, if you’ll pardon the expression, an empty ritual–and soon enough complaints about complaining about the complaints will be declared an empty ritual, and so on and so on, in the endless refractions that carom through punditry’s postmodern house of mirrors, where all commentary is about other commentary. The disdain that political journalists express for modern party conventions (not only “empty ritual” but “staged,” “choreographed,” “infomercial,” and all the other seething pejoratives) is matched only by the intensity with which they insist on covering them. Every national political reporter knows the drill. He will sniff at how “substance free” the conventions are, he will roll his eyes at the inflated claims of party publicists, and then he will mow down his grandmother if she stands between him and the chance to get a good hotel room adjacent to the convention center…

I’m not the first to have noticed that nowadays, when a political party convenes for its quadrennial gathering, there are actually two conventions going on: the traditional convention of perhaps 4,000 party activists and a much larger convention of 15,000 political journalists. Both conventions fulfill the customary social and business functions of such gatherings, as surely as a meeting of the Shriners would, or the annual convention of the Direct Marketing Association: The participants hang out, gossip, drink, spend expense-account money, “make contacts,” do a little work, eat better food than they would at home, skulk through the occasional illicit sexual liaison, and gather scraps of information that may later prove useful.

This tale-of-two-conventions is now commonly recognized. What is less often noted, though it becomes increasingly obvious, is that as the party conventions grow wan and meaningless, drained of all surprise and news value and practical importance, they have been kept alive by the second convention, the journalists’ convention, which in contrast grows larger, more elaborate, and more robust every four years. The parasite has consumed the host.

I came across Andrew Ferguson’s piece in this more recent but also terrific item by Jack Shafer at Slate.com. “Unless a brokered convention threatens to break out, these political gatherings tend to produce very little real news,” Shafer writes. “Yet the networks, the newspapers, the magazines, and the Web sites continue to insist on sending battalions of reporters to sift for itsy specks of information”:

According to Forbes, 15,000 pressies are expected to attend each of the conventions. Slate, I’m embarrassed to admit, is sending a team of eight to Denver and six to St. Paul. Attention! Don Graham! We’re spending your cash like it’s Zimbabwean bank notes!

While your average political reporter doesn’t think the conventions are a waste of time and resources, he’s likely to agree that nothing very newsworthy actually happens at them. Oh, he may filibuster about how a looming platform battle promises to produce fissures in the party. But if you observe that platforms are written to be ignored by the candidate, he’ll drop his point. Or he may argue that meeting all the important politicos up close at the convention will produce future news dividends. But he’ll pout if you ask him whether the intimacy justifies the expense, which can easily exceed $3,000 per reporter for a bare-bones visit. (A single seat in the designated workspace area at a convention can cost more than $1,000, and an Internet connection is $850. Snacks purchased at the convention make ballpark food look affordable.)

Share
Single Page

More from Ken Silverstein:

From the November 2013 issue

Dirty South

The foul legacy of Louisiana oil

Perspective October 23, 2013, 8:00 am

On Brining and Dining

How pro-oil Louisiana politicians have shaped American environmental policy

Postcard October 16, 2013, 8:00 am

The Most Cajun Place on Earth

A trip to one of the properties at issue in Louisiana’s oil-pollution lawsuits 

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

May 2015

Black Hat, White Hat

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Beyond the Broken Window

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In Search of a Stolen Fiddle

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Displaced in the D.R.

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Quietest Place in the Universe

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
“Don sucked the last of his drink through his straw and licked his lips. 'The coast, to me, is more interesting than the valley.'”
Photograph by the author
Article
Fred Morton, who died this week in Vienna, at the age of 90, was a longtime contributor to Harper's Magazine and a good friend. "Othello's Son," which was listed as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2013, appeared in our September 2013 issue.
Photograph © Alex Gotfryd/CORBIS
Article
Beyond the Broken Window·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“By the time Bratton left the department, in 2009, Los Angeles had quietly become the most spied-on city in America.”
Illustration by Taylor Callery
Article
Displaced in the D.R.·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“How is it possible that my birth certificate is invalid if I was born here?”
Photograph by Pierre Michel Jean
Article
The Quietest Place in the Universe·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Gaitskell and his colleagues are approaching the revelation of a new order, a new universe, in which even light will be known differently, and darkness as well.”
Painting by Sebastiaan Bremer

Number of African countries with vaccination rates higher than that of the United States:

16

Iowa urologists reported that only a minor portion of locker-room teasing arises from “the presence of excess foreskin”; most teasing targets small penises.

A farmer in Surrey, England, was ordered by the Reigate and Banstead Borough Council to tear down his cannon-equipped castle, which he had built secretly and then concealed behind hay bales.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today