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Jewish World Review August 8, 2000 / 6 Menachem-Av, 5760

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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Consumer Reports

Can't they spare eight nights every four years? -- THE EVENTS of the last week have made me completely reverse an opinion I have had for years.

I now believe that the major television networks should go back to the old way of covering political conventions -- cameras focused on the podium most of the time, long hours of nonstop broadcasts from the convention halls, attention paid to what the speakers are saying.

Boring? That's what I had thought -- I'd thought that it made no sense for the networks to devote gavel-to-gavel coverage to the conventions. What goes on there? They're just commercials for the political parties, right?

But what the networks -- and I'm referring to the old, traditional networks, NBC, CBS and ABC -- did last week, as the Republicans met in Philadelphia, was insulting to the American people.

Not only did they provide the very fewest hours possible of convention coverage -- showing, instead, reruns of situation comedies and new episodes of those moronic "reality" shows about islands and housemates -- but when they did go on the air from Philadelphia, they did everything they could to keep their cameras away from the people who were actually speaking at the podium. Instead, the broadcasters spoke to each other -- blathering about the very things they refused to allow their viewers to see.

You may be saying: But the nominations of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney were already assured. Where was the news?

The news was this: Every four years, the two major political parties hold their conventions to show the nation their own view of who they are. It may be corny, it may be scripted, it may be whitewashed -- but it is how the parties want to be seen. It's their self-portrait.

And that is important -- that is news. This is a democracy -- and the citizens of the United States are asked to choose between parties. We have a right to roll our eyes at what the parties are telling us, or to get angry, or to dismiss what they are saying as bland and timid -- but we can't make those judgments unless we see how the parties define themselves.

It would not seem to be too much to ask the major networks to devote a total of eight nights every four years to allowing the American people to see the conventions. To put sitcom reruns and feature-oriented "newsmagazines" on the air instead of the conventions is, to use an archaic term, bad citizenship.

Oh, but some network executives will argue, the political coverage has been turned over to cable stations. It's a new television world.

Nonsense. Did you watch the cable news channels' coverage of the Republican convention? It was, if anything, more insulting than the over-the-air networks' refusal to carry the convention. The cable news channels used the convention hall as a teeming, colorful backdrop for their own stables of chatterers to stage mini-talk shows. Off on the distant podium, you had convention speakers trying to make points they believed to be of import. You couldn't see them; you couldn't hear them.

And if you are saying that political speakers are shallow, cynical and devoid of real substance, then you're indulging in lazy stereotyping. Whatever the faults of the men and women who spoke at the Republican convention, they came to the hall because they believed in something and thought it deserved serious attention. They might not have been riveting or scintillating -- but they had given thought to issues that will affect all of us far into the future.

How do I know? Because I watched the convention on C-SPAN -- the public affairs cable network that shows the full conventions, that carries every moment of every speech from the podium. Devoid of the posturing of the analysts high up in the hall, devoid of the smirks of the commentators, the convention as C-SPAN showed it was -- I'll just come right out and say it -- pretty interesting. It was -- another old-fashioned phrase -- food for thought.

Shallow people? Cynical people? Listen -- it's easy to say that about politicians as a group, but you will never find people more shallow or cynical than the men and women who produce and program what passes for prime-time television entertainment every evening of the year. Next to what those people produce for America's eyes and ears, what the political men and women had to say in Philadelphia last week was like a breeze of cleansing air.

Would I want to listen to the Republicans and the Democrats every night? Of course not. But eight nights every four years would not seem to be requesting a lot from the networks. For the networks to give the American people some help in seeing the political parties' self-portraits would be, among other things, the right thing to do.

And for those (perhaps many) people who wouldn't want to watch?

Put the networks' prime-time entertainment programs on cable for eight nights every four years. The republic will survive.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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