Carnival of Excess

TV at the conventions

As we prepare to face up to the national political conventions of 1968, let us go back to a moment in 1964 when David Brinkley looked down on the Republican convention and said in that way that David Brinkley says things, "Nothing succeeds like excess."

He was talking about some madness of the moment, some gassy, extravagant, and irrelevant exercise by the assembly in the Cow Palace at San Francisco. His aphorism could have been applied as well to the whole institution of presidential nominating conventions. The institution is an American invention of the mid-nineteenth century and nobody has had the nerve to copy it; but to the wonderment of the rest of the civilized world, this carnival of excess remains a vital part of a successful political system.

Also see:
Convention Sketchbook (July 30, 2004)
Seen and heard at the Democratic National Convention. By Sage Stossel.

Brinkley also could have been talking about the television enterprise in which he was participating. The acknowledged wry comment champion of television news was defending his title in a glass aerie that cost the National Broadcasting Company about $100,000 to build, use for four days, and tear down. The network was spending nearly $3 million to cover the convention (whose outcome was foregone) with 60 tons of electronic equipment and a staff of more than 500 people. The staff included such specialists as 26 directors and associate directors; 173 cameramen and engineers; 4 famous transistorized correspondents explaining and creating confusion among the delegates on the floor; a bearer assigned to haul food and drink to Brinkley and Chet Huntley in their booth under the rafters; and a flack assigned to monitor, collect, and publish for the greater glory of NBC each day's wry comments under the title of "Brinklies."

That convention was won, as almost everyone on Madison Avenue recalls, by the Huntley-Brinkley ticket. NBC swept the ratings from the first gavel to the last, routing the Columbia Broadcasting System and leaving the American Broadcasting Company far behind with hardly a respectable favorite-son vote. The outcome of the Democratic convention was the same.

NBC won not because the other networks failed to compete vigorously. All three competed so vigorously, and seemed to become such a prominent part of the proceedings, that a mighty flap about intrusive, obtrusive coverage ensued. Its reverberations continue on the eve of the 1968 conventions. There is growing concern that television is subverting the character and injuring the function of a grand old American institution.

After the 1964 conventions Walter Cronkite of CBS made a speech in which he came right out and said, "I heartily believe that in 1968 the political parties ought to ban television from the floor of the convention hall." He was for televising the convention, of course, but he thought television's aggressive and gadgety presence on the floor itself "makes a mockery of the fact that this is a convention of delegates who are supposed to be listening to the speeches and tending to some sort of business."

This was heresy to a large segment of the television news fraternity, but Jack Gould, the influential television critic of the New York Times, rushed to Cronkite's support, writing: "For any viewer who survived the long summer nights of TV's competitive frenzy and the cathode calisthenics on the convention floor, Mr. Cronkite's stature has achieved heroic proportions."

Some weeks later, no less an advocate than General Dwight D. Eisenhower carried the case to the Republican National Committee. In the best tradition of Eisenhower-off-the-cuff indignation, the former President said a political convention on television "is a picture of confusion, of noise, of impossible deportment, of indifference . . . and in short a thing that if it happened in a business trustee meeting or even the annual meeting of one of your corporations, you would be horrified." He blamed television and the press, along with inept sergeants at arms, supernumeraries, and "spurious" demonstrators, for the spectacle that offended him. "I think the convention floor should be inviolable. Only people on it should be delegates. I say all press, all publicity media, should be excluded from the floor. They have places. We want them, but certainly we don't want them running around and having interviews when they are interfering with someone who is trying to make a serious point before the convention."

The Republicans cheered and appointed a Committee on Convention Reform. From their initial zeal one could have concluded that the Republicans were going to turn the next party convention into a sort of Chamber of Commerce meeting with violin music in the background.

The Democrats did not get very excited about reform; they have always been much more relaxed than the Republicans about television and the press and confusion generally. While the Republicans were drafting pages of suggested restrictions, most of which would be greatly softened, especially where television was concerned, by convention time, little was heard from the Democrats except a casual remark by National Chairman John Bailey that he hoped to "do something about that damned camera stand." He meant the one at the front of the hall blocking a good many of the delegates' and alternates' view of the podium at the last couple of conventions.

It should be said that many of the most respected men in television news have rejected the contention that their medium should concentrate on decorous coverage of the podium and program of the conventions. Brinkley, for example, has said, "Television's job at a convention is journalism, to cover the news, whether it is on the rostrum, on the convention floor, in a back corridor, or in a downtown hotel. Our job is not to serve as . . . a coast-to-coast loudspeaker system for politicians to use as they see fit. I 'disagree completely [with the Cronkite proposition], and I think it is one of the worst ideas I ever heard of."

Howard K. Smith of ABC said, "Many things are wrong with political conventions, but they were wronger long before television. Speeches and demonstrations that once lasted for hours now take only minutes. Thanks to television, and its floor correspondents, the 'viewer is generally better, and sooner, informed, than is the spectator in the convention hail. When there is confusion, frequently it is the television or radio newsman on the floor who first provides the' needed clarification."

Television needs a show with enough color, drama, and tension to hold an audience for the sponsors. Within that framework, news executives want to cover the news. At a national convention precious little news is made on the rostrum, nor is there much color, drama, or tension in a windy address by the lieutenant governor, of somewhere who wants to get some prime-time exposure and then go home and run for the Senate.

Bill Leonard, vice president of CBS News, said recently while brooding over his network's' plans for 1968 convention coverage, "You can't just point the camera at the convention. Hell, nobody would watch after a while. Even the delegates don't pay any attention to most of what goes on. They have to be chained to their seats. We have to try to report what's really going on. Often, the way a correspondent has to do that is to look into the camera and tell you with his mouth. Or, if I've got my choice between the national committeewoman of Wyoming welcoming some guest to the platform, and an interview on the floor with the chairman of a crucial delegation that has just caucused, I'm going to the floor." Leonard does not contend, nor do other network news people, that television coverage of conventions approaches the ideal. "I'm not ashamed to say that we overcover them," he said. "When we turn our attention to something, we are so big we make it big. When we overplay something, it can be serious. And I must say we sometimes hit a gnat with a baseball bat."

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