Television

Bright Lights, Big Screens

Notes on the Democratic Convention.

Illustration by Natalie Matthews.

Maureen Dowd and Frank Rich last shared a byline in the summer of 1992, a time when it was novel to report on the party conventions as scripted spectacle. “Meticulous Kabuki dramas,” they called them—a notion now so conventional as to invite helplessly absurd utterances from the TV personalities who serve as the drama’s chorus. On Monday—with Caroline Kennedy approaching the Democrats’ podium in Denver and the news having been reiterated 500 times that Uncle Teddy was in town—Alan Colmes found it appropriate to say, “We’re going to go right to the stage right now. … We’ll show a video and then a surprise speech by Ted Kennedy.”

That does not exactly meet the definition of a “surprise,” but that’s certainly quite a stage, its electronic panels reaching up to beam the light of progress down on the delegates. In ‘92, Dowd-Rich looked at the Democrats’ rippling Old Glory-inspired set and saw a “manifestation of Governor Clinton’s effort to chill out his party. … In 1988, the Democratic stage was a behemoth of right angles. But the Clinton camp, which prefers blandness to conflict, wanted rounded corners.” What’s the message of this year’s mood lighting? The Denver Post strikes close to the mark in describing Pepsi Center as resembling “a videogame that collided with a game-show set.” The vibe is that of an immersive media bath—Webby, MySpacial, and faux-interactive.

Slate V: Did Fox News and MSNBC watch the same speech?

CNN, the one cable news channel with its convention headquarters inside the arena, has been presenting the convention with a like emphasis. For many of the 12 or 14 hours a day when nothing important is happening on the convention floor, it gives its audience vistas of screens within screens within split-screens. At one point Monday morning, you simultaneously saw panelists captured by three different cameras, file footage, recent news clips, and some other network’s broadcast of—seriously—a soccer match. Aiming for technophiliac prowess, CNN delivers a technocratic jumble, which at least provides a distraction during those tediously frequent points when its commentariat strives to rework the drama by introducing conflict.

On MSNBC, it falls to the personalities themselves to create chaos. In the evenings, ever-excitable Chris Matthews and steadily strident Keith Olbermann manage this entertainingly from their desk outside Union Station, where there’s been a reliable crowd of rabble to rouse. In the early hours, MSNBC’s broadcast originates from a restaurant called Sam’s No. 3. It feels like they’ve set up a studio in a hectic green room, and it is a tribute to the strong stomachs of the Democratic faithful that they’re able to keep down breakfast burritos at 5 a.m. even as Terry McAuliffe slithers through the room.

Even more queasy-making than McAuliffe’s presence is the way that the horseplay air of MSNBC’s convention coverage—the regulars on Morning Joe are as giddy as ninth-graders on a sleepover field trip—highlights all that is retrograde in the on-screen relationship between host Joe Scarborough and female sidekick Mika Brzezinski. She’s always his Ed McMahon and Robin Quivers, with her quick-draw guffaws ratifying his every laugh line. In Denver, she has fully devolved into a giggling Girl Friday. At one point yesterday, she scampered out of frame to fetch a cup of coffee for strategist Bob Shrum.

If that is your idea of daytime fun, then Fox News will of course serve you best. Its squad of platinum blondes, ever diligent, has chipperly presented everything from the mayor of Denver, who proffered microbrews, to the Broncos’ cheerleaders. Rustling their pompoms in the morning light—the cheerleaders, not the anchors, did the rustling—they did their part to enliven the gentle freak show that is TV’s response to the main pseudo-event.