Conventional Wisdom

Unconventional Voices

By Sarah Wides

When bloggers were granted press passes for the first time at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, proponents of alternative journalism viewed the development as a major victory for the independent media. Blogs were praised for bringing a certain passion back to a political ritual that, in the minds of many, had long ago become perfunctory.  This new breed of journalists (a label that proved a bit controversial) had a fresh, individualized take on the dusty proceedings, and could offer their readers a unique perspective: a person with the access of an insider, but the presence and authorial voice of someone who didn’t quite belong.

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The angle, however, was far from original.  Long before bloggers appeared on the scene, long before the internet was even a twinkle in any computer programmer’s eye, counter-culture luminaries like Norman Mailer and Hunter S. Thompson were chronicling the conventions of the 1960s and ’70s on their own terms.  They, among others, helped to usher in the age of New Journalism, a style that emphasized literary traditions such as first-person narrative. It embraced the editorial, the subjective – the writer was as much a part of the story as anyone else.  Their reports on the political conventions, including Mailer’s “Superman at the Supermarket” and “Miami and the Siege of Chicago,” as well as Thompson’s compilation, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, were a radical departure from the colorless accounts provided by the mainstream news outlets. 

Around the same time, Sony began marketing portable video equipment, and for the first time, the average consumer could easily capture his or her own footage. Video collectives formed rapidly and pioneered what became known as the “guerilla television” movement, a technological push for social change that was akin to New Journalism for the small screen.  Among the first of these collectives was the hugely influential Top Value Television (TVTV), founded by Michael Shamberg, Allen Rucker, Tom Weinberg and Megan Williams, but also included future comedy royalty Bill Murray and Harold Ramis.  In 1972, the TVTV collective descended on Miami to document the Democratic and Republican National Conventions (in The World’s Largest TV Studio and Four More Years, respectively), and put their own distinctive spin on the coverage.  The crew interviewed protestors and spectators, delegates and janitors, Nixonettes and Yippies, as well as some newsmen and women who readily admitted to their boredom with the whole affair. 

TVTV never attempted to hide the cynicism and contempt it felt toward the Establishment, in regards to both the network media behemoths and the political party in charge.  This attitude informed every conversation, every shot and every edit of the TVTV productions; the conventions were presented exactly as they were experienced by the filmmakers.  One scene of The World’s Largest TV Studio features Shamberg telling a reporter who is interviewing him about the project, “Instead of a mass media, we want a personalized media,” and he is then quoted as saying their approach is “a whole new way of looking at a convention.”  TVTV succeeded in creating a “personalized” media, news that was meant not only to inform, but to inspire and speak to the young members of their generation. Today, political blogs are representative of the news media at its most personal, holding the same torch carried by video collectives in the seventies and lit by an innovative group of journalists in the sixties.

World’s Largest TV Studio

TVTV reveled in its subversive nature, demonstrated by the group’s blatant disregard for any of the traditional methods of news reporting.  This clip features Skip Blumberg and Michael Shamberg defending their video-taping strategies and “gonzo” philosophies.  Blumberg says most journalists focus only on their subject, editing out the action surrounding that person, but argues that the result is an inauthentic depiction of the event because everyone there is part of the story – including the reporters themselves.  Shamberg continues this point in an interview with a writer, revealing the meaning behind the title of their project. He also explains why the standard reporting style and video equipment used by the networks are unable to effectively convey the mood and environment of the convention.

Four More Years

The Vietnam War was perhaps the most pressing issue of the Republican Convention in 1972, and the TVTV crew was determined make a point by giving protesting veterans a voice that could not be heard through the mass media.  In a poignant clip, the cameras capture protestors who have managed to slip through the convention security, among them Ron Kovic, the celebrated anti-war activist who was paralyzed in Vietnam and authored the memoir Born on the Fourth of July.  Kovic and others attempt to interrupt Nixon’s formal nomination proceedings by loudly pleading to end the bombings, but the celebration continues with smiles and balloons galore. It is a pointed contrast between two sides of this convention: one that the public is meant to see and one that the Establishment would rather be swept under the rug.


Hunter S. Thompson

“Compared to the Democratic Convention five weeks earlier, the Nixon celebration was an ugly, low-level trip that hovered somewhere in that grim indefinable limbo between dullness and obscenity – like a bad pornographic film that you want to walk out on, but sit through anyway and then leave the theater feeling depressed and vaguely embarrassed with yourself for ever having taken part in it, even as a spectator. It was so bad, overall, that it is hard to even work up the energy to write about it…I finished my double-tequila and went upstairs to my room to get hopelessly stoned by myself and pass out. It was that kind of a convention.”

The atmosphere of the democratic convention: “Very cool and efficient, very much under control at all times…get the job done, don’t fuck around, avoid violence, shoot ten seconds after you see the whites of their eyes.”

Thompson, Hunter S. Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72. New York: Straight Arrow Books, 1973.


Norman Mailer

“A political convention is after all not a meeting of a corporation’s board of directors; it is a fiesta, a carnival, a pig rooting, horse-snorting, band-playing, voice-screaming medieval get-together of greed, practical lust, compromised idealism, career-advancement, meeting, feud, vendetta, conciliation, of rabble-rousers, fist fights (as it used to be), embraces, drunks (again as it used to be) and collective rivers of animal sweat. It is a reminder that no matter how the country might pretend it has grown up and become tidy in its manners, bodiless in its legislative language, hygienic in its separation of high politics from private life, that the roots still come grubby from the soil, and that politics in America is still different from politics anywhere else because the politics has arisen out of the immediate needs, ambitions, and cupidities of the people, that our politics still smell of the bedroom and the kitchen, rather than having descended to us from the chill punctilio of aristocratic negotiation.”

“The Republican Party was still a bunch of church ushers, under-takers, choirboys, prison wardens, bank presidents, small-town police chiefs, state troopers, psychiatrists, beauty-parlor operators, corporation executives, Boy Scout leaders, fraternity presidents, tax-board assessors, community leaders, surgeons, Pullman porters, head nurses and the fat sons of rich fathers. Its candidate would be given the manufactured image of an ordinary man, and his campaign, so far as it was a psychological campaign (and this would be far indeed), would present him as a simple, honest, dependable, hard-working, ready-to-learn, modest, humble, decent, sober young man whose greatest qualification for president was his profound abasement before the glories of the Republic, the stability of the mediocre, and his own unworthiness.”

Mailer, Norman. Some Honorable Men: Political Conventions 1960-1972. Little Brown, 1976.


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Photo credits—Blogger: Mario Tama/Getty Images; Hunter S. Thompson: Michael Ochs Archives/GettyImages; Norman Mailer: Courtesy Dick Cavett