Conventional Wisdom

Moments in the history of media coverage of the political process

By Ron Simon

The nominating conventions for presidential candidates have always responded to the times. Once the domain of party bosses who selected candidates behind closed doors in those proverbial smoke-filled rooms, conventions now ratify the will of the people expressed during the ever-growing primary season. Television has been a major factor in the evolution of the convention from a darkly lit locus of deals and intrigue to a well illuminated and choreographed showcase for the party’s best and brightest.

Conventional Wisdom Continues...

As presidential historian Michael Beschloss has noted there is no mention of political parties in the Constitution. Parties and conventions have developed over time to deal with the practical necessities of electing a president. Until the era of television, party leaders and delegates actually selected the nominees at the convention. In 1924 Democratic leaders struggled through 103 ballots to select a rather obscure candidate, John Davis. Beginning in the fifties television foregrounded early presidential campaigning and state primaries, eventually transforming the convention into a gaudy rubber stamp of the people’s will. Thus, younger politicians such as John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama were able to establish bonds with the electorate before gaining the confidence of party leaders.

Republicans and Democrats alike use the convention to brand their political party. Not only is the presidential candidate officially introduced to the country, but also the party is defined by platforms and personalities. Party leaders and consultants work to create an overall image under which all their candidates, national and local, campaign for office. The networks also use their convention coverage to brand a news identity. Since each network is covering the same event over four days, often dipping in and out of the convention speeches, perspective and insight are necessary ingredients to capture an audience during an event where nothing out of the ordinary is expected to happen.

Sameness often breeds sameness. Talking heads abound on network and cable news, but the conventions have also prompted creativity and outright surrealism from some unlikely media reporters. Norman Mailer charted the spiritual health of the nation in his unconventional narratives, most notably “Superman Comes to the Supermarket” for Esquire in 1960 and “Miami and the Siege of Chicago” for Harper’s in 1968. Hunter Thompson went gonzo surreal in covering the 1972 campaign for Rolling Stone. Although Thompson readily admitted to creating bizarre falsehoods in his copy, his account of the race was labeled “the least accurate and most truthful” by McGovern manager Frank Mankiewicz.

As we prepare for another election year, the Paley Center surveys some of the most conventional and unconventional moments in the history of media coverage.  


"Conventional Wisdom" pages: 1 | 2 | 3

Photo credits—Barack Obama: Jim Rogash/WireImage; Zell Miller: Congressional Quarterly Photo by Scott J. Ferrell; Rolling Stone cover illustration by Ralph Steadman