With TV shunning convention coverage, newspaper fills the void

August 01, 2004|By Paul Moore

BECAUSE THE Democratic National Convention dominated the news last week, I awaited an outpouring of complaints about liberal bias from readers. I expected cries of protest about The Sun's use of news space, the headlines and photographs and the analysis of politically charged speeches. And with filmmaker Michael Moore, of Fahrenheit 9/11 fame, seemingly everywhere on the convention floor early in the week, I anticipated denunciations of his presence from conservatives.

But for the most part I was wrong. I received more e-mails and phone calls about a story in Monday's Today section about pop singer Clay Aiken than about Teresa Heinz Kerry's telling a Pittsburgh journalist to "shove it," or about Al Gore's denunciation of President Bush's foreign policy. Kevin Cowherd's column about the barrage of spam that greets computer users each morning received more response than Hillary Rodham Clinton's call for a unified Democratic party.

An exception was reaction to the headline "Democrats roll out royalty," which accompanied the lead story on Tuesday's front page, along with a photo of Bill and Hillary Clinton. "I'm very much afraid that to even proffer a comment about today's Sun headline - `royalty' - would serve to offer it some dignity it deserves none of. Nonetheless, to print such an absurdity is outrageous," said Holden Rogers of Chestertown. Others readers agreed. In fact, late Monday night, Sun editors eliminated "royalty" in the headline for the majority of Tuesday editions.

The most disturbing development last week was the diminished, often superfluous televised coverage of the Democratic convention. The major networks had abandoned serious nighttime reporting before, but coverage was reduced even more this year - to three hours in four nights. The cable networks produced live nightly broadcasts, but with the exception of C-Span, too often opted for talking-head analysis instead of actual speeches or roll calls.

This helps explain the unusual circumstances surrounding Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley's speech Wednesday night. The Sun's Kimberly A. C. Wilson documented that only C-Span had carried the speech live, and that a "microphone glitch" had made his remarks difficult to hear on the convention floor. The article, which provided significant detail about the mayor's remarks, also quoted Maryland Del. Kumar P. Barve, who was seated high in the arena, as not being able to hear what the mayor was saying.

"I found the article deplorable," Baltimore County Councilman Vincent J. Gardina said the next morning. "The references to the sound quality and that it received so little TV exposure detracted from the mayor's important message. It was way too negative."

In spite of Mr. Gardina's complaint, Ms. Wilson's reporting on the technical problems and major cable-network snub was important because so few readers saw or heard Mr. O'Malley's speech. In this instance, the newspaper was the primary source of information on the mayor's speech.

Neither this event nor the Republican National Convention this month will produce high political drama. After Patrick J. Buchanan's infamous "culture war" speech at the 1992 GOP convention and the lack of discipline in the length of speeches by Democrats during the Clinton years, it's not surprising that the political parties developed more streamlined and predictable conventions. But the lack of interest by the networks and the self-serving presentations by the major cable outlets is an abdication of public responsibility.

This leaves newspapers with even more responsibility to cover the conventions and to find and report news, even if on the surface there does not appear to be much news.

When John Kerry accepted the Democratic nomination Thursday night, all the media were paying attention. As reported by The Sun's Paul West, Mr. Kerry overcame a history of being long-winded and delivered his speech in less time than expected. This gave the networks and cable the chance to use the extra few minutes for instant analysis.

In this context, Mr. Kerry's speech was a success, whether one agrees or disagrees with its content. I hope readers will find that newspaper coverage contained depth and perspective that went beyond being on time.

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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