BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. This convention week, it was hard to tell what was the greater subject of revelation: the Democratic nominees, or the tortured psyches of the media. The lamentation started last Saturday when the Associated Press ran a piece about the press corps complaining about the lack of porto-johns. Then followed reports about the cramped working conditions and the elaborate pass system, and throughout, the media noted with stoic distaste that there would surely be no news at this event. But they -- the brave, the true, the many -- would soldier on and flood the zone, even if the networks would hardly cover it.
BOB GARFIELD: But cover it, they did -- if by "it" you mean everything but what the long line of speakers actually said from the podium. On TV, at least, there was but scarce commentary on the substance of the speeches. Unlike much of the public, the jaded reporters had heard it all before, and it bored them. What fascinated them were the big questions of these nervous times. They were ensnared by imponderables like these:
REPORTER: How would Teresa Heinz Kerry handle the role as first lady? Would she be more reserved, like Laura Bush, or more outspoken like Hillary Clinton.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Um. I think more like Hillary.
REPORTER: Should this picture...
BOB GARFIELD: Kerry in a laboratory jumpsuit...
REPORTER: ...be compared to this one?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Dukakis in a helmet.
REPORTER: Many people are asking that question today.
BOB GARFIELD: Uh...I don't think so.
REPORTER: Ron Reagan -- wait a minute. Isn't he a Republican?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I don't know.
REPORTER: I gotta tell you Steve, I watched a feed yesterday when Howard Dean was speaking in Florida, and he is still an angry man. Do you think that that same kind of Bush-hating anger could deflate the Kerry campaign the very same way it destroyed Howard Dean's?
BOB GARFIELD: Yes!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: No!
BROOKE GLADSTONE and BOB GARFIELD: Maybe!
BOB GARFIELD: Glad we could clear that up. If only we'd been there. [WHISPERING] We could have made a difference.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mike Pesca of NPR's Day-to-Day was, so we called him up on the last day of the convention. Hi, Mike!
MIKE PESCA: Hi, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what's with the irrelevant questions? Where do they come from?
MIKE PESCA: Desperation. [LAUGHTER] Sheer desperation. Flop sweat? I can't totally blame the media, because when the politicians, when the parties create the convention, what they're trying to do is pre-chew the news; then regurgitate it right back into the mouths of the viewers via the media. And you know, the media has to do something to stop that process, so what they try to do is they try to create some conflict and drama.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Some of these pressing questions seem to be plucked directly from the talking points of the Republican National Committee.
MIKE PESCA: Well, there are these little shadow delegations of the opposition party, and they're cranking out press releases all the time. I mean the GOP dot com web site is cranking out a press release a day. Often, they just don't get picked up. During the convention, I've been to that site every day. I've been to the room where they craft the message, and I have to say I've seen, somewhere in legitimate media, almost every one of those press releases represented. You know that the people asking the questions wouldn't have had the idea without it being planted in their minds, but you know the Democrats are going to do the exact same thing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah. And, and I think one of the clearest examples probably is the likening of Kerry in his science suit with Dukakis in a tank which, you know, they really have nothing to do with each other.
MIKE PESCA: You're right. Dukakis in a tank went right to an issue that was seen as a deficiency -military. No one sees John Kerry's stance on science or space funding as a deficiency. He probably knows a lot about it as a matter of fact. You know, so it's just like hey, silly outfit, silly outfit. But that got more play than a number of silly outfits that the man's worn, but it's during the convention. And, you know, one paper -the New York Times -has a hundred reporters here. Cable networks have more than that many people here. Most of the major papers in America have entire pullout sections. So some of the standards for what would pass muster as newsworthy get lowered as the amount of actual information doesn't fill those pages.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, Mike, you say that one thing reporters don't want to do is regurgitate the speeches.
MIKE PESCA: Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But what happens when the speakers themselves defy expectation, like Al Sharpton did when he delivered his speech? The reporters didn't even seem to be listening -- only looking at their watches.
REPORTER: Al Sharpton was supposed to speak for six minutes. He wound up speaking for about 20 minutes. Judy Woodruff--
BROOKE GLADSTONE: He goes on and on and on and you've just got to ask "But what did Al say?"
REPORTER: We got an advanced text of his speech, and it wasn't very much like he delivered.
REPORTER: Well, it was kind of like the outline. And in fact the person who is now going to rush to the Maalox counter is the teleprompter operator who was flipping the teleprompter. We could see this and the whole back and forth, desperately trying to figure out where Reverend Sharpton was going next.
MIKE PESCA: There should have been a little more attention to the content of a lot of the speeches, rather than just seeing it purely as performance. So, ironically, we talk about all these extra sections that the newspapers have or cable just going wall to wall with coverage, and there's a lot of stuff that needs to be filled, but it seems like the last thing that they're filling with -- and there's a lot of good color stories, which I enjoy, and there's a lot of gossip, which is, you know, legitimate enough for this week -- but there's not a lot of analysis of the policies that the speeches are talking about. Let me give you an example. Barack Obama gave the keynote address on Tuesday. One of the standout lines of the convention was when he said "We pray to a mighty God in the blue states, and in the red states they don't like federal agents poking around their library records." And people talked about the performance there and what a star Barack Obama is. But you know, let's take the second part of that statement -- "poking around their library records." There's actually a debate there. The attorney general, John Ashcroft, denied that they ever actually use the Patriot Act in libraries. The ACLU and other civil liberties groups filed Freedom of Information requests to see if they did look into libraries. But that's real policy, and you know, if you have so many pages to fill, I'd have liked a story on that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It really seems, then, that while the reporters are complaining bitterly about no news at the convention, they weren't really covering the news that they could have -- the news that was actually there. Don't you think this points out a fundamental problem with the political media and perhaps with the media in general -- that they just don't seem to understand what it is the public wants?
MIKE PESCA: How people use the convention is to get their only taste of a candidate at length -- not buffeted by people telling you what the candidate's going to say, and not cut down to a 15 second sound bite -- and that's being generous. You never see, through the 18 month political process, you never see a candidate just talking, at length. That just doesn't happen. And the one time it should happen is during a convention. And, as the convention gets played on networks less and less--
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Only an hour a night for three nights.
MIKE PESCA: -- and of course fewer people learn about what they say they want to learn about, which is what all the candidates stand for.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So is that trend likely to continue? Or can the networks be persuaded to expand the coverage out of a sense of public service?
MIKE PESCA: Pollsters are telling us that we're going to see higher voter turnout, which is a reverse of a four-term trend. Turnout spiked a little bit in 1992. But in general, the long time line is that it's going down. People say it'll go up. Now maybe the networks will be able to turn around and say, see, we did less convention coverage ever, and there still was high voter turnout.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay. Mike, thank you very much.
MIKE PESCA: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mike Pesca reports for NPR's Day-to-Day.