Prisoners of convention

I have to admit two shocking things. First, I was wrong about something I told you about the Democratic National Convention, and also, for the first time, I find myself in sympathy with right-wing bashing of the broadcast media.

No, I haven’t seen a vision or consumed alcohol out of the photocopying machine. Last week, I implied that while the networks had mostly abandoned broadcasting our great tribal political rites, something approaching full “gavel-to-gavel” coverage could be found on public TV and the cable news channels.

What a naive fool I was. Most of these stations only pretended to air the convention. What they really showed far too much of the time was a bunch of burned-out, cynical talking heads running their mouths and trying to impress each other. I have seen a lot of political speeches in my time, and I thought those by John Kerry and John Edwards were, while different, superb.

But barely had Edwards finished when a reporter sneered that it wasn’t among his “30 best speeches that I have heard.” The next night, the convention was absolutely enraptured by Kerry’s speech, which sounded, I thought, more, well, presidential than the acceptance speeches of Al Gore or Bill Clinton.

Nevertheless, the talking heads were immediately whining it was short on specifics, or not inspiring enough, or not revealing enough, or emphasized Kerry’s military service too much, or was too conservative for the delegates, etc.

We didn’t even get to see most of the other speeches. If we had, we might have learned something about what is going on in the minds of Democrats across this country, and what some of their concerns were.

Dan “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” Rather, who was sporting snappy new suspenders, had justified not covering this because the convention was really a vast “infomercial.” One wonders whether CBS objected more to the info than the commercial, or, most likely, to the fact the parties didn’t want to buy the time. Suddenly I had a sympathetic spot in my heart for the conservatives who in the old days deplored the networks’ “instant analysis” of speeches by the likes of Richard Nixon, which needed to be analyzed because they were so full of lies.

Nowadays, however, the analysis is mainly content-free. For example, we heard the talking heads meowing that the accomplished and, frankly, alluring (at 65) Teresa Heinz Kerry didn’t spend enough time praising her husband.

What the networks do understand is survivor shows, and they anointed their one survivor early — the impressive Barack Obama, an African-American so exotic even old bigots were talking about him in awe.

The real moment of truth about the media came, however, during Al Sharpton’s speech. For three days the press had been whining how boringly predictable the whole convention was. I wouldn’t vote for Al for shift leader at the Tawana Brawley Crisis Center, but he is entertaining and has the gift of skewering certain issues more deftly than the best of the rest of them.

And, naturally, you can always count on Slick Al to do his own thing. Allotted six minutes, he took 20, and enraptured the audience with his raucous prose. The best line was when he recounted how, having been denied their promised 40 acres and a mule after slavery, African-Americans “didn’t get the mule so we decided we’d ride this donkey as far as it would take us.”

Annoyed, the guardians of decorum at PBS indignantly jerked the cameras away. The talking heads were clearly angry that at last someone had departed from the script. And without asking their permission too!

Howard Fineman of Newsweek did the convention’s best impression of a little old lady annoyed she had to wait for her light rinse. “It is an insult to African-American voters that they are giving this guy as much time as they have,” kvetched Howie, our latest self-anointed spokesman for black America, while his fellows clucked sympathetically.

However, those few real Americans who managed to see something of the Democrats, and don’t feel a constant need to impress themselves and their buddies with their brilliance, may have thought something else.

The day after Kerry’s acceptance speech I was in Charlotte, a small town west of Lansing, and a graying editor of a weekly community newspaper came up to me. This man, who probably makes less than $40,000 a year, is about as far away from the liberal media elite as I am from the fashion runway at Milan.

He had voted for George W. four years ago. “I want to bet you $5 on the election. Let’s put our numbers in a sealed envelope,” he said.

After watching Kerry’s speech (he knew little of him before) he felt sure of the final result. His prediction: Bush 47, Kerry 53. Basically, he felt that Bush had lost the nation’s confidence (and his) over the failed war, and that what John Kerry had to do was to show that he would be competent and trustworthy.

For him, that happened with that muscular speech. Whether most Americans will agree remains to be seen. Sadly, most Americans did not see Kerry’s speech, nor Edwards’. For many, the defining moment likely will be the debates. That is, if the chattering class lets America listen.


Now for the real WMDs: We don’t think much about them anymore, but there are real weapons of mass destruction all over the place, most of all in America. They are called nuclear weapons. We have thousands, and 59 years ago this week we became the only nation to ever use them on people.

That’s something we should all remember. Damu Smith does; he is a leading figure in Greenpeace, and perhaps the nation’s foremost environmental activist of color. This Saturday, he’ll give a talk, “No More Weapons of Mass Destruction,” at Barth Hall at Woodward and Warren. Thanks to Peace Action of Michigan and the Swords and Plowshares Peace Center, admission is free.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]
Scroll to read more Metro Detroit News articles


Join Detroit Metro Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.