Skunk at the picnic

September 01, 2004

IT WAS A RARE unscripted moment in the otherwise elaborately choreographed Republican convention program, and the thrill was electric.

Sen. John McCain, who'd rather not criticize his friend, Democratic challenger John Kerry, directed his fire from the podium instead at filmmaker Michael Moore, whose anti-war polemic Fahrenheit 9/11 has helped Democrats mobilize opposition to President Bush.

Lo and behold, Mr. Moore was in the hall. He raised his hand in the shape of an L, for loser, directed either at Mr. McCain or at the hundreds of delegates hissing and booing at him, shouting, "Four more years, four more years."

All great fun, especially for Mr. Moore, who figures the publicity boosted sales for a movie that's already made him rich. But it embarrassed and outraged the working reporters with whom Mr. Moore was seated, credentialed as a columnist for USA Today.

In an era when political operatives become talk-show hosts and the demand for balance is believed to be met by letting hacks of opposing affiliations scream at each other, the newspaper can hardly be blamed for experimenting with the format. Conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg commented on the Democratic convention for USA Today's editorial pages; Mr. Moore is his opposite number at the GOP bash.

Trouble is, Mr. Moore's celebrity as a Bush-basher is now so huge there was no way he could slip quietly into the ranks of ink-stained wretches. The newspaper tried to stash him in some empty cheap seats. But he came accompanied by his own body guards and attracted such a flock of reporters who thought he was a newsmaker rather than a newsgatherer that security forces sat him in the press section and locked it down.

This excitement came toward the end of an evening during which delegates were entertained between speeches with cheery and uplifting taped interviews of Bush supporters conducted by actors posing as television reporters.

But why should that be a surprise? After all, this gathering - like the Democratic convention before it - is a scripted event, a skewed reality. This blurring of the lines separating journalism, politics and celebrity is not particularly helpful to American voters seeking answers to serious questions about the direction of the country - but what an old-fashioned notion that is turning out to be.

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