There was a moment during Michelle Obama's speech at the Democratic National Convention last Tuesday night when I thought someone had heckled the First Lady right to her face on international television.
She was talking about who the president is, how the presidency hasn’t changed him, and some of the things he fills his personal time with.
“He’s the same man who started his career by turning down high-paying jobs,” she said, a deep blue screen in the background, huge white stars behind her back and over her left shoulder. “That’s the man I see in those quiet moments, late at night, hunched over his desk, poring over the letters people have sent him.”
And that’s when it happened.
"From the father struggling to pay his bills, from the woman dying of cancer whose insurance company isn’t covering her care, from the young people with so much promise but so few opportunities," and then, from the crowd, five syllables, shouted — a male voice, a tenor, in front of her, down and to the right. She looked down at him, stuttered for just a speck of time — "a- an- and" — before completing the sentence: "I see the concern in [the president’s] eyes … and I hear the determination in his voice as he tells me, ‘You won’t believe what these folks are going through, Michelle....’"
To me, that half-second seemed to last a minute, maybe longer. I paused the live coverage (I was watching it on Fox News) and rewound, watched it again — an instant replay. Then I watched it again. Seventeen minutes and 16 seconds into the speech. She scanned the crowd — as she had throughout the speech — but then looked into the camera with a sense of urgency. Her face fell for just a moment, as if she was looking in veiled horror at the camera’s operator rather than the camera’s lens — silently asking "what now?" — before looking down at the heckler himself.
In her eyes, that’s what I saw — that she was, in a moment, panicked: She thought someone, or rather one man among the hundreds of delegates on the main floor of more than 20,000 at the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, North Carolina, where she stood addressing the nation, the world — she thought this man was shouting her down, mocking her, interrupting her during perhaps the most important public speech of her life. But this thought only persisted for a half-second. A painful half-second. A half-second that could have derailed the entire speech.
The television I can’t escape
I'm getting flashbacks.
It’s only been days, but it feels like a year ago. There was the intense heat, the unbelievable moistness of the hot air. One moment, I remember, there was a blue sky and we were walking down a city street. The next moment, we were standing in a downpour, looking for cover. This happened repeatedly, now that I think about it. The rain did nothing to cool the air or quell the sticky, unrelenting heat. We saw convenience stores or coffee shops as air-conditioned oases. We sometimes went sleepless rather than suffer our sweltering tents. And then there was the security. My god, where did all the police come from?
That was Tampa. That was the Republican National Convention.
But Tampa was also an exercise in changing directions at a minute's notice. There was just so much going on, with none of it qualifying as breaking news, that we were left scrambling all over the city to find the real story — much of the time under extreme duress.
Which is why I’m having flashbacks.
After spending a week in oppressive Tampa heat chasing after anarchists and political operatives, just about the last thing anyone wanted to do was watch a week of DNC television to get the perspective from the other major political party, and from a living room rather than the convention itself. So the task fell to me.
But I'm finding that the two assignments — covering a major political convention from the ground, then covering it from the supposed comfort of my couch — aren't all that different. In fact, covering the DNC from my couch might be more difficult.
At the RNC, when the vague political speeches became too much to tolerate, we had the luxury of leaving the convention center. We’d go check out the fringes; usually that was more telling than the happenings inside the convention itself.
But that's not possible with television. And it's only moderately possible when you're paying attention to people who are writing about the same thing you're watching. So I’ll just sit here, flipping from channel to channel, scrolling through thousands of Tweets, with this series of thoughts in mind:
I know the speakers' messages because they're distributed by the DNC, often word-for-word, before the speech is actually given.
I know the speakers themselves because their biographies and video speeches are all over the web.
And I know this presentation is designed to showcase a presidential nominee and his running mate — with as few surprises as humanly possible.
So why am I doing this?
My typical night last week can be condensed into a single, crystalline evening. I sit down alone among my television, smartphone, and laptop at 8 PM. Staring at the TV, I begin flipping obsessively through CNN, Fox News, PBS, and C-SPAN. I also follow about 500 people on Twitter, scroll through status updates of about 300 Facebook "friends," and generally click around looking for anything to hold my attention on the web during downtime. Because for the most part, it all feels like downtime.
Somehow, though, I catch myself complaining — out loud, to myself, in expletives — that I don't have enough media options. I realize, for example, that Fox Business (often more openly conspiratorial than the main Fox News programming, more likely to pin the nation’s economic woes on President Obama’s socialist streak) isn't covered under my cable subscription. And I don’t have access to CurrentTV. While I hunt for other channels I’ve not subscribed to, I see that E! is featuring a Keeping Up With The Kardashians marathon during the convention and TruTV is showing old Hardcore Pawn episodes one after another. I haven’t seen either of the episodes currently showing and I have to force myself not to make Kourtney, Kim, Khloé, and Les Gold part of my DNC routine.
While speeches begin at 11 AM at both conventions, few of the featured speakers take the stage before 7 PM. Often the networks pick up the convention feed even later than that. Clint Carvalho and his Extreme Parrots are competing alongside nine other musical and variety acts during round two of this season’s America’s Got Talent semifinals, so NBC can’t show the convention until 10 PM, when it’ll catch speeches from San Antonio's mayor Julián Castro and the First Lady.
I start with Fox News. Around 8 PM, Bill O'Reilly, in his, "Talking Points" segment, says, "All the charts in the world are not going to change their minds." He says the country is worse off than before Obama, "And if you are talking to someone who disputes that, immediately terminate the conversation. Because that person is irrational — a Kool-Aid drinker." Meanwhile, Karl Rove, according to Bloomberg Businessweek, had recently told a roomful of donors and business tycoons, "If you keep it focused on the facts and adopt a respectful tone, then they’re gonna agree with you."
Both Bill O’Reilly and Karl Rove were talking about undecided voters and how to woo them to Governor Romney’s side. But apparently there’s a difference in philosophy: O’Reilly favors cutting off conversation when it gets contentious while Rove favors an approach that might actually woo the undecided.
Regardless, it takes me about 40 minutes to 1) find that Businessweek article in the midst of thousands of mostly snark-based Tweets, 2) read it, 3) go through a bunch of Tweets that actually refer to it — none of them adding any additional information to what the article presented — and then 4) get a glass of water.
By 8:40, the speeches are on. I'm back watching Fox News and O'Reilly’s either done with his show or he’s decided to pay attention to the speaker, Congressional Candidate Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq veteran who lost her legs in battle. The latter seems unlikely because O’Reilly is paid to speak, not to listen.
"Barack Obama will never ignore our troops," Duckworth is saying. "He will fight for them. That's why he is my choice on November 6th. My choice is to do what my family did when times were hard: roll up our sleeves and get to work. My choice is to do what my crew did for me in a dusty field in Iraq."
Flip to MSNBC.
I’ll just sit here, flipping from channel to channel, scrolling through thousands of tweets
"If you can’t trust a guy about his marathon time can you trust him about his policies?" Chris Matthews asks Nevada Senator Harry Reid, referencing Republican Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan’s apparent fib about running a marathon in less than three hours. Matthews’ segment is over and the channel transitions over to Rachel Maddow. She dives directly into a discussion of anti-abortion laws enacted after the Republicans made huge gains in the 2010 elections. The convention goes on behind her; she's actually in Charlotte, but ignoring Duckworth.
"There were a record number of anti-abortion laws passed," she says. She's talking about Ryan partnering with Rep. Todd Akin, the Missouri senatorial candidate now permanently yoked to the phrase "legitimate rape," to pass strict abortion laws. The Republican party doesn't want to talk about these issues, she’s saying. But the DNC is going to be all over them.
CNN has Jesse Jackson. "Urban violence is surging in Chicago," he's saying, then asking the reporter if anyone’s talking about this — about the rising violence in a few major metro areas. The reporter ignores him, perhaps an ode to Peter O'Hanra-Hanrahan, and signs off.
This goes on for hours.
What we're watching
"Conventions used to serve a tremendous purpose," Norman Leahy, Washington Post contributor and co-founder of the right-leaning Virginian media company, Bearing Drift, told us at the RNC. "Conventions actually used to decide nominees," he said. Now, however, "when candidates campaign all over the country for primaries and caucuses, the winner is already known and the convention is really just a formality. So why were we here in this center that is riddled with security and parties and god knows what else?"
Leahy evokes the "smoke-filled rooms" of political conventions long past, when delegates of each major party would debate and select a presidential nominee. After a contentious selection process in early 1968, however, the DNC adopted a primary system for nominations, effectively taking nomination power out of delegate hands. The RNC followed suit in 1972. Since then, political conventions have served no functional purpose other than agreeing on a set of core party values and rubber-stamping a nominee. But a circus has grown up around this.
It’s debilitatingly obvious that unless you’re inside it, there’s not much to see at that circus. Sure, from the comfort of your home you can take in the main event, on television and Twitter and the web and wherever else — pick your outlets, pick the personalities you like, and see what they say — but your role is passive. You are just a viewer. You are just a voter. If that.
Unless you’re inside it, there’s not much to see at that circus
Then again, many news outlets seem to equate the mere act of tweeting about a politician with the highest forms of political engagement. One function of political conventions has long been future king-making; President Obama himself is an example of this, and at each convention, new stars hope to follow his lead.
Even four years ago, a speaker’s post-convention "buzz" might have been difficult to quantify. This year, though, we have the dubious utility of Twitter mentions. At the RNC, the standouts were, of course Paul Ryan, but also Marco Rubio — who trended on Twitter at nearly 9,000 tweets per minute during his speech, ranking higher than Clint Eastwood, Paul Ryan, or Ann Romney.
At the DNC, San Antonio mayor Julian Castro is a comparable rising star. Appearing just before Michelle Obama on Tuesday, he received more than 11,000 tweets per minute during his speech, more than any RNC speaker except Mitt Romney.
Those numbers show us two things:
First that, yes, in some ways, merely tweeting about a political figure means any random Twitter user can help, in some miniscule way, to anoint a new political star. But let’s remember that anyone can tweet as often as they’re capable. So it’s not like these numbers show a true democracy; it’s not "one person, one vote."
Second, DNC followers were much more prolific on Twitter than their RNC counterparts. During Mitt Romney's speech users tweeted about it 13,000 times per minute; they tweeted about Obama's more than 52,000 times per minute.
The DNC also seemed to have better managed its Twitter strategy. Case in point: RNC purchased the Twitter hashtag #areyoubetteroff — recalling Ronald Reagan’s famous question and suggesting that American life under President Obama is worse than it was four years ago, under President George W. Bush. To make the rhetorical point, though, users had to answer, "Are you better off?" with "No." Which many did, such as @RomneyResponse, quoting a video of Rep. Paul Ryan speaking: "‘I think President Obama has placed us on a path to decline.’ #AreYouBetterOff."
But many — three times as many, in fact — answered "Yes." And a look at the hashtag right now shows that most of the tweets are, in fact, less like the previous example and more like this, from @CaptainPajamas: "#AreYouBetterOff? Yes. It's like republicans have amnesia of how we got into this mess in the first place."
This RNC hashtag apparently backfired. Which isn't to say that the DNC's promoted hashtag, #Forward2012, didn't get its share of anti-Obama vitriol. But at least it didn't explicitly open itself up to mockery. Lesson learned, I suppose: don't use a rhetorical question as a hashtag, since you don't get to control the answer.
What you're missing
"It is the report that gives the event its force.”
I don't need to go into what else happened at the DNC. If you care, you probably saw it all go down, or read synopses from one or more of the 15,000 journalists who covered the event. If not, what you missed was celebrity appearances by Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman, and Piers Morgan prattling on about Eva Longoria's high heels. Vice President Joe Biden spoke on the last night and while I watched Fox News' Brit Hume say the speech sounded "angry," others suggested Biden sounded blitzed. President Obama followed Biden and no one said anything of the sort about his speech. The convention was pretty much all speeches, now that I think about it, including a pretty good one by President Bill Clinton in which he played loose with facts but also gave a convincing impersonation of a human being — a decisive feat at a political convention, apparently. It's amazing how far this goes, and how significant it seems to be. The news cycle following his speech said less about his actual words than about how much he deviated from his script.
I don't know much about what was reported in the mainstream press during the RNC, but I followed the DNC pretty closely and I saw almost nothing about protests outside the security perimeter. In fact, I saw exactly nothing from the mainstream news channels, and only occasional videos from Flux Rostrum at Mobile Broadcast News. Creative Loafing Charlotte produced some interesting work about the Green Party's attempt to insinuate Jill Stein, its candidate, into DNC discussion, and its reporters also hit the protest beat and talked a little about the police state these conventions become. None of those stories made it far beyond a relatively small alternative newsweekly audience.
But an unscripted story that did get beyond a small audience was the one-man protest waged by John Cook at Gawker.
Cook took issue (as we all should) with the Obama administration's policy toward "targeted killings," which allows the CIA and military to seek out and murder U.S. citizens who have been categorized as enemy combatants in the ongoing so-called war on terror. The CIA and military can do this without publicly revealing why a person is considered an enemy combatant, or how these government agencies came to that conclusion. So Cook did something about it: he went around the DNC asking various public officials, politicians, and Lanny Davis, the following question: "Can Americans trust Mitt Romney to make the call about which American citizens to assassinate with drones?"
The resulting shaky cam video is very rough but incredible — an assemblage of storm offs (Sen. Kay Hagan), brush offs (Newark Mayor Cory Booker), and at least one more or less serious, if deflective, answer from DNC spokesman Brad Woodhouse: "I don't think we would argue that [Mitt Romney] is prepared to be commander in chief."
Cook has access to the convention and he’s ballsy enough to pester major politicians to their faces, which is saying something. Saying more, perhaps, is that Cook’s piece is a protest — an expression of dissent. It's not exactly locking arms in front of a major corporation’s headquarters, but it makes a point about an issue no one's talking about at the political conventions. And, unlike the protests outside both conventions — overwhelmed by police that are armed and staffed by more than $100 million in federal taxpayer dollars — people are seeing it; the story has almost 100,000 views at last count.
The point here is that these events are not exactly real: they are, as Daniel Boorstin called them in his 1962 book, The Image, "pseudo-events" or "counterfeit happenings." To the owners of these events — to the RNC and DNC — the value "depends on its being photographed and reported in newspapers [and] magazines," and today on television and the web. "It is the report that gives the event its force," Boorstin wrote.
And perhaps the only way to truly disrupt that force, or at least to take advantage of it to make a point, is to do what Cook did: to take the event in unintended directions. Because the options for — and perhaps the willingness to — protest these events in significant ways have been all but done away with. And it’s not clear, with the apparent appetite and / or tolerance U.S. citizens have for overwhelming police presences, how dissenting movements such as Occupy can protest events like these without looking silly or grossly outnumbered.
It is not for you, viewer
Someone shouted at Michelle Obama. There was a half-second of tension — maybe a half-second of panic. Maybe she thought it was all over. Maybe she thought the speech was done, compromised to the point of futility. Maybe the story would now be, "Man Shouts Down First Lady," rather than whatever else it might've been...
Or maybe not.
You'll have to excuse what passes as fantasy under the circumstances. After following nothing but DNC coverage for hours — on C-SPAN's uninterrupted live stream, via CNN's coverage featuring a man named Wolf, through Fox News' doubtful eye, on NBC and CBS and PBS, on Twitter and Facebook and Tumblr, on the Washington Post's website and BuzzFeed's main page, on The Verge and The New Republic and The New Yorker and The New York Times and Bloomberg Businessweek — I thought I had finally seen something rare and truly compelling: a moment that shattered the routine and transformed the show from polished to somehow unpredictable and flawed. I thought I had seen genuine dissent from the convention floor. I thought I had seen someone heckling the president’s wife on an international stage.
But I hadn't.
What I did see is exactly what I was supposed to see: a speech, well read from a teleprompter, on television, in which someone shouted something, probably supportive rather than mean, at the First Lady. And it seemed to escape the media’s eye.
But as I sat there, taking in the spectacle, I realized that perhaps the only true piece of knowledge I gleaned over the last two weeks of following the conventions — in person from Tampa at the Republican National Convention and now from my home — came not from a tried and true mainstream journalist or any of the various feeds I've followed but from Scott Baker, editor-in-chief of Glenn Beck's growing media conglomerate, The Blaze.
Last week in Tampa, I asked Baker if the media's role at these conventions was simply to be there in case some public figure happened to slip up — happened to blither on and on at an empty chair or tell a reporter to "shove it." Baker said not really. The media's role is to be there, yes, but not for slip ups. No, the media's there to catch what Baker called "revelatory moments where people show who they really are."
"Revelatory moments" can mean just about anything. For The Blaze, it meant pointing out Joe Biden's repeated misuse of the word "literally," and finding Democratic delegates who said they'd "kill Mitt Romney." But, for me, the revelatory moments of the DNC showed more about what media has become than any politician or message shown on the convention stage.
The DNC and the RNC are events that are more about the voices covering them — the personalities of the networks, the people behind the Twitter handles, the staffers curating the Facebook pages — than the events themselves.
There's perhaps a weird democratic beauty in this — a kind of shadow-play of self-government.
But the conventions are scripted events; they're pre-planned to be flawless and regimented, like clockwork. Pseudo-events.
Do the voices of those pseudo-events offer a better vision of what's actually there? Or have they allowed us to only see what we want to see?
DNC Photo by Steven Bott
Photo credit: The Washington Post