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:

Commentary November 17, 2015, 6:41 pm

Shaky Foundations

The Clintons’ so-called charitable enterprise has served as a vehicle to launder money and to enrich family friends.

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

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

December 2016

Prose by Any Other Name

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The New Red Scare

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Separated at Birth

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Priest in the Trees

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Lightness

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

With Child

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
With Child·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. 'Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.'"
Photograph (detail) by Lara Shipley
Article
Swat Team·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"As we shall see, for the sort of people who write and edit the opinion pages of the Post, there was something deeply threatening about Sanders and his political views."
Illustration (detail) by John Ritter
Article
Escape from The Caliphate·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"When Matti invited me on a tour of the neighborhood, I asked about security. 'The message has already been passed to ISIS that you’re here,' he said. 'But don’t worry. I guarantee I could bring even you in and out of the Islamic State.'"
Photograph (detail) by Alice Martins
Article
In This One·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. 'Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.'"
Illustration (detail) by Shonagh Rae
Article
“Don’t Touch My Medicare!”·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Medicare’s popularity, however, comes with almost no understanding of what the program is and how it works."
Illustration (detail) by Nate Kitch

Estimated number of people who watched a live Webcast of a hair transplant last fall:

8,000

A rancher in Texas was developing a system that will permit hunters to kill animals by remote control via a website.

A man in Japan was arrested for stealing a prospective employer’s wallet during a job interview, and a court in Germany ruled that it is safe for a woman with breast implants to be a police officer.

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

HARPER’S FINEST

Who Goes Nazi?

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"It is an interesting and somewhat macabre parlor game to play at a large gathering of one’s acquaintances: to speculate who in a showdown would go Nazi. By now, I think I know. I have gone through the experience many times—in Germany, in Austria, and in France. I have come to know the types: the born Nazis, the Nazis whom democracy itself has created, the certain-to-be fellow-travelers. And I also know those who never, under any conceivable circumstances, would become Nazis."

Subscribe Today