What To Expect From The Political Conventions Of A Pandemic

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A sign advertises the convention at Wisconsin Center, home to the 2020 Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee on August 11, 2020. (Brian R. Smith/AFP via Getty Images)
A sign advertises the convention at Wisconsin Center, home to the 2020 Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee on August 11, 2020. (Brian R. Smith/AFP via Getty Images)

The media and political conventions have long had a symbiotic relationship, with the RNC and DNC offering era-defining TV moments like Goldwater at the Cow Palace, and Obama’s star-making speech in 2004. This year it will all be on screens, with no uproarious applause. We talk about why that matters.


David FolkenflikNPR media correspondent. (@davidfolkenflik)

Bakari Sellers, CNN political commentator. Former state representative in South Carolina. Author of "My Vanishing Country: A Memoir." (@Bakari_Sellers)

Dan Rather, anchor of CBS Evening News from 1981 to 2005. He was with CBS News for 44 years, from 1962 to 2006. Author of the 2017 book “What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism."At the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, he was in the middle of a scrum where security guards blocked his access to a Georgia delegate. (@DanRather)

Interview Highlights

If you were charged with covering this year’s unconventional convention, how would you go about doing it?

Dan Rather: “First of all, I’d get a very hot and big pot of coffee on. Secondly, I would settle back in and say to myself, don’t be cynical. Be accepting, take everything in. And recognize that this is so different this year. That, look, we're all in uncharted territory. Nobody's ever had a virtual convention before. What I’d be looking for, among other things, is how much attention this actually gets. Is anybody out there in America … actually watching and listening to this? First of all, this is a very difficult thing to put together. They almost — I wouldn't say certainly — but with this much spread out, people coming from different places, glitches, things that don't work, are bound to be a factor.

"To answer your question, what I'm looking for, you know, how well does the party put forward its message? But as we begin this week of the conventions and what we have is, you know, the Democrats are trying to put forward a message of we are reaching into the past with Joe Biden, reaching into the future with Kamala Harris. So we're the party of both the past and the future. With the Republicans message, whether they intend it or not, is that their party has become completely, fully the party of Trump. The Democrats are going to try to make their message this week. That's the choice the country has. We'll see how effectively they can do that.”

Let's go back to the 1968 convention. There's a moment during the convention when you are on the floor and physically attacked. Outside of the convention, there were protests, tear gas; a national mood of chaos. Are there echoes of this 1968 convention that apply to this year? 

Dan Rather: “I do agree that there are some similarities with 2020 and 1968 in terms of demonstrations in the streets, the country being at odds with itself, so to speak. But on the other hand, this is a whole new century. It is a different time, and in many ways almost a different country. It's hard to make too close a parallel in that, for one thing, at the convention, at the Democratic convention, this was the country in some ways showing itself to the world at its worst. And the whole world was watching.

"As you pointed out, there were demonstrations, protests outside the convention hall in Chicago, and then there was an insurgent movement inside the hall. And what happened in there in that piece that you played, with Walter Cronkite [and] myself was there was such an effort to keep control inside the convention hall that actually violence was being used against convention delegates, as well as to reporters.

“But what we can learn from it is that no matter how bad things look at any given time, this country does have the ability, a tremendous ability to be resilient. And to pick itself, almost literally up off the floor and get back. Which we did after 1968 in the turbulent ‘60s. I don't want that to sound like some kind of fuzzy-headed, ‘well, everything's going to be alright’ optimism, that each generation has to demonstrate anew. But to answer your question, what we can learn from '68, the country can be extremely divided. But it also has the capacity to pull itself back together and reunite. Whether that will be the case now as we move quickly now under the third decade of the 21st century, is one of the things that will be part of the background to these political conventions.”

"The country can be extremely divided. But it also has the capacity to pull itself back together and reunite. Whether that will be the case now as we move quickly now under the third decade of the 21st century, is one of the things that will be part of the background to these political conventions.”

Dan Rather

What is the role of journalists during political conventions?

Dan Rather: “It's a big responsibility for journalism and journalists. But in answer to your question, I think, number one, simply put, journalists should just do the job, just do the damn job. And the job is to be honest brokers of information. To put forward what the party wants people to hear and then to connect the dots, if you will. Report what has happened, what's being said, and then connect those dots into responsible analysis. And get as close to the truth as is humanly possible, and stand and tell it. That's the best that journalists can do. Journalists can't solve all the problems, but they can give people the information. We can give people the information they need.

"But there's one thing that I think we should point out. We'll be finding out this week and then later at the Republican convention whether people will pay attention to these so-called virtual conventions. I have some concern that particularly with the pandemic and the economic situation being what it is, that you may not have as many people watching and listening to the conventions as you would have if the conventions were their, if you will, spectacular showmanship. So we're about to find out. But I do have some concern whether enough people will tune in the conventions to make them the kickoff to the real campaign that we generally expect them to be.”

On fighting election cynicism

Dan Rather: “I agree it's hard not to be cynical, which is one reason I was cautioning myself and other journalists to be wary of cynicism and to go into it with an open mind. But I'd be curious to see — the Democrats, they have some opportunities here, to sort of crack through the glass, as people inside television sometimes call it, and to provide a memorable moment. And then in a moment, will sort of catch fire, if you will, on social media and things like Facebook, and Twitter and Instagram.

"For example, tonight, which is the opening night, of course, of the Democratic convention. Michelle Obama, she has a tremendous following. She has a very positive image in the country as a whole. You know, a terrific Michelle Obama speech could mean a lot to these conventions. And one of the questions tonight is, well, she's batting cleanup. She has the prime spot, the climatic spot between 10 and 11 p.m. Eastern Time Zone. And, you know, she in the past has often delivered big time when there are a lot of chips on the table, so to speak. You know, among tonight's storylines, is she able to do that again in this weird virtual convention format? I think she has the ability to do so. And as I say, it'll be one of the storylines I'm watching tonight.”

From The Reading List

Politico: "How 'Fake News' Was Born At The 1968 DNC" — "In the weeks leading up to the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley turned his town into a fortress. He sealed the manhole covers with tar, so protesters couldn’t hide in the sewers."

New York Times: "How the Democrats Are Lining Up Their Convention Speakers" — "The Democratic National Convention will play out like a star-studded Zoom call next week, anchored by nightly prime-time keynote speeches, with Michelle Obama on Monday, Jill Biden on Tuesday, Barack Obama on Wednesday, and Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s acceptance speech on Thursday, according to a schedule of events."

NPR: "As Harris Launches Candidacy, Conservatives Take Aim At Her Black And Indian Heritage" — "Journalists write, as the maxim has it, the first draft of history. And Kamala Harris is seeking to make history."

Washington Post: "Sweat, steak, five o’clock shadows: How TV transformed political conventions in 1948" — "At the first widely televised political convention in 1948, a smiling Clare Boothe Luce stepped to the microphone with her blonde curls and white pearls shining under the bright lights."

New Yorker: "How To Steal An Election" — "At sunrise on the day before the Republican National Convention begins, in Cleveland, a hundred women will take off their clothes and pose for the photographer Spencer Tunick outside the convention hall."

The Guardian: "Media to be banned from Republican convention due to coronavirus restrictions" — "The media will reportedly not be allowed to witness Donald Trump’s formal renomination as the Republican party’s choice for president at its national convention later this month."

PBS NewsHour: "Will COVID-19 mean the end of already-fading conventions?" — "COVID-19 has disrupted a centuries-old political mainstay — national political presidential nominating conventions."

Journalists Resource: "Election Beat 2020: Let them be heard — Covering the national party conventions" — "A shell of a shell is how a cynic might describe the 2020 U.S. presidential election’s national party conventions."

This program aired on August 17, 2020.


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Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.


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