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Boorstin published his book, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America, two years after the 1960 Democratic convention, the last national gathering of Democrats to open with the identity of their presidential candidate in any doubt. Following a day or two of backstage politicking, the nomination went to John F. Kennedy. Thereafter, 30 national conventions, Democratic and Republican, have commenced with nearly all of the party’s business already accomplished, including the informal designation of its presidential nominee. (The only modern exception is the 1976 Republican convention in Kansas City, Missouri, where Ronald Reagan made one final lunge for the nomination before Gerald Ford pocketed it.) During most presidential-election years, usually a few weeks into primary season, journalists and politicos try to rescue themselves from boredom by contemplating the possibility that their fondest dream will at last come true: a “brokered convention” complete with dark horses, front-runners, and favorite sons and daughters, competing through multiple roll-call votes until a surprise victor emerges from the rubble.
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Drama! Uncertainty! Real-world events to write about! It never happens. Pseudo-events don’t work that way.
The unhappy decline of the political convention, from meaningful event to pseudo-event, is closely tied to the advent of electronic media, particularly television. As McLuhan knew, and expressed in his famous formula, the means (the medium) by which information (the message) is disseminated can alter the nature of the information. This is especially true when there’s not a lot of information to begin with. Television first featured at the conventions in a big way in 1952. That summer, broadcast networks aired the first nationwide gavel-to-gavel convention coverage, 60 hours’ worth each week. According to a definitive monograph by the scholar Zachary Karabell, an astonishing 80 percent of U.S. TV-owning households spent an average of 10 to 13 hours a week watching the conventions that year.
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Four years later, ratings dipped—and they dipped again four years after that. Network executives worried that the conventions were not, after all, good TV. Convention planners, panicked that this bounty of free advertising would vanish, responded as time went on by trimming the proceedings to fit the shrinking attention span of television viewers. Speeches were shortened and schedules tightened. More celebrities were recruited to strut upon the stage, and podium designs bristled with colors to delight those Americans lucky enough to own a color TV. There were occasional failures in the pursuit of made-for-TV conventions, some of them spectacular; in 1972, in a symptom of the general chaos afflicting his party, the Democratic nominee, George McGovern, didn’t deliver his televised acceptance speech until 3 a.m. EST.