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Why National Party Conventions Merit Substantial News Coverage

So, why, if there is “no news” at the Democratic convention in Boston, as so many journalists lament, are so many reporters covering it?

There are an estimated 15,000 media representatives here, roughly three for every convention delegate. They have been sent here at considerable expense by news organizations large and small, from every state and scores of countries around the world.

The explanation, of course, is that what happens here over the next few days and later at the Republican convention in New York sets the stage for the biggest “news” of the year, the selection of the president and party that will lead the country for the next four years.

The identities of the nominees are not in doubt – that sort of suspense drained out of these quadrennial gatherings long ago – but the conventions are rare opportunities for each party to present their leaders and their views to a public that polls suggest has yet to focus on the election.

That is why the reporters are here, spending their employers’ money, chasing after every political figure they can find and privately hoping, of course, that against all odds, something unexpected, some “news” in the traditional sense of the word, will still happen before they pack up and go home at the end of the week.

So, if these conventions are important, if unconventional, “news,” how much coverage do they deserve?

Not much, is the answer of the three major over-the-air broadcast networks, which are planning only three or four hours of coverage each during the week.

At a panel discussion on the eve of the convention, the news anchors, Dan Rather of CBS, Tom Brokaw of NBC and Peter Jennings of ABC, all lamented their respective networks’ unwillingness to pre-empt more entertainment programming in favor of more live, prime-time convention coverage.

Each of the three said such decisions were beyond the scope of their jobs and authority. Dan Rather, for instance, argued that he is the managing editor of the CBS Evening News, but not the CBS network, and hence not able to dictate what is broadcast in prime time.

Brokaw and Jennings both said they had argued for more coverage without success. But Jim Lehrer, the anchor of The NewsHour, wasn’t having it. “I’m sorry,” he said, “you guys are a hell of a lot more important than your bosses are willing to admit.”

The audience, crowded into an auditorium at the Kennedy School at Harvard University, burst into applause. The anchors three looked uncomfortable.

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