Comment: Cameras look for tension during scripted conventions

The parties have taken more control but it’s still a clash of competing narratives, media vs. party.

By Amber Roessner / Special To The Washington Post

Donald Trump’s Republican Convention has bounced around from Charlotte, N.C., to Jacksonville, Fla., and now primarily to Washington, D.C. (though with some parts in Charlotte), thanks to Covid-19. But 45 still has big plans to orchestrate a presidential coronation, culminating with his acceptance speech on Thursday.

Like presidential nominees before him, Trump and his campaign team have focused with laser-sharp acuity over the last 18 months on scripting a carefully constructed coronation. And their goals remain the same: selling the reality-TV president and the image of a unified Republican Party to his niche audience for another four years.

But the camera also can reveal party tensions in unanticipated ways, a fact that candidates, party leaders and their television advisers have learned firsthand. And this might actually be an opportunity for the legacy news media, operating in what media historian David Mindich has called a “Murrow moment,” to wrest back control of the framing of the convention.

The convention as a media-pseudo event, more about spectacle than the nominating process, is rooted in changes in the media and political landscape that have happened over the past 70 years, as historian Kathryn Brownell has observed. But during this time, as much as party leaders have worked to control convention images, the camera also has served as a window into intraparty conflicts.

Republican candidate Dwight Eisenhower certainly recognized this emerging reality in 1952. CBS News broadcast powerful images of trusted correspondent Walter Cronkite being barred from entry to clandestine pre-convention backroom conversations where Republican machine politicians were working to deal with controversy over whether to seat the Texas delegation. The networks wanted drama, and in the end, Eisenhower and the Republican Party got lucky. Discordant scenes of their party’s battle over the seating of delegates got overshadowed by an even more chaotic Democratic convention in Chicago where battles over the nomination and the issue of loyalty pledges upstaged the Republican drama.

But this would not always be the case for the GOP. In 1964, the “magic lantern,” as political scientist Herbert Waltzer called it, caught images of the violent clash between Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater’s conservative wing of the Republican Party and the anti-Goldwater forces. On-air reporters, such as CBS correspondent Daniel Schorr, reported amid images of protesters with signs that read “Goldwater for Fuhrer” and deployed a sensationalistic narrative about conflict in the GOP. The fight was framed as an extremist takeover, and the narrative of Goldwater’s extremism persisted throughout the campaign.

Candidates and presumptive nominees from both parties recognized that the whole world indeed was watching and grew to fear the power of the all-seeing eyes of network cameras that broadcast images of bloody protests and violent floor fights. For Democrats, these stakes became especially clear during their turbulent 1968 convention. In the wake, networks faced accusations of biased, sensational news coverage, especially after Cronkite displayed a momentary lapse in objectivity when he called out Mayor Richard Daley’s establishment thugs and his producers looped footage that he contended described “almost symbolically the situation in the city,” even as ABC framed the protesters as provoking the confrontation with police.

The blowback largely convinced the Big Three networks to acquiesce to the parties’ demands that they be the driving force behind the production of tightly scripted party infomercials. Richard Nixon was quick to take advantage of this new convention mediascape in 1972. Amid massive protests against the Vietnam War, Nixon worked diligently to avoid adversarial coverage. To do this, he shunted reporters to the wings while he delivered a vibrant made-for-television spectacle designed to mask a campaign strategy that involved corruption and money-laundering. He enlisted his henchmen to attack the news media both publicly and privately, then cordoned them off to the sidelines to witness what NBC News reporter Cassie Mackin called a “very dull, packaged, plastic” performance with “very little spontaneity.”

Outsider Democrat Jimmy Carter pulled a similar move four years later by critiquing the media as members of the elite establishment and projecting images of unity by keeping intraparty battles behind the scenes. For his efforts, the news media praised the emotion conveyed through this staged “love-in.”

“This is as well-staged of an entrance for a nominee as I have seen in a number of conventions,” NBC news anchor John Chancellor conceded as network cameras captured Carter walking among the people, through rows of standing delegates before he mounted the podium at Madison Square Garden in New York to accept his party’s nomination. These same cameras captured the emotional closing moments of the “Carterized” made-for-television convention when, after a moving benediction from Martin Luther King Sr., party leaders stood shoulder to shoulder, singing “We Shall Overcome.” Print journalists translated these images into a narrative synthesis, with Time magazine professing that “one could almost hear shouts of ‘Hallelujah.’”

Since then, networks have grown more cynical about the value of conventions, given that there hasn’t been one where the nominee was unknown in advance since the 1976 Republican gathering. And yet, they continue to offer this live, uncritical convention coverage, albeit less of it. “Ninety-nine point nine percent of the people see conventions from television,” Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez recently acknowledged. “Conventions are television productions, and we are going to have a great show four nights in a row, highlighting who we are as a nation.” Most reviews considered Perez’s party to have delivered on this promise.

But in our much more partisan media climate, it remains to be seen how news reporters will cover this year’s (un)conventional GOP party infomercial. That is especially true given Trump’s penchant for making outlandish claims, spreading misinformation and threatening political norms; already on evidence during a Monday speech to the Republican delegates during their roll call.

As in the past, the commercial news media, guided by its bias toward sensationalism, undoubtedly will call attention to any unfolding conflicts or drama in the form of protests or political scandals accompanying the Republican National Convention. The question is, given the modern presence of niche partisan news outlets and echo chambers, will it matter?

As network convention correspondent Herb Kaplow explained in 1972: “[The convention is] the ultimate collision. It’s their television program, and it’s our television program.”

So, perhaps the only real question that remains is how the American public will react to the media’s narrative about a show, written, directed and performed by the nation’s first reality-television president.

Amber Roessner is an associate professor in the University of Tennessee’s School of Journalism & Electronic Media and author of “Jimmy Carter and the Birth of the Marathon Media Campaign,” forthcoming from LSU Press in spring 2020.

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