Filibustered is Alex McLevy’s column about the overlap between politics and pop culture.
Every four years the presidential conventions roll around, rising from the dead like impatient cicadas, to make a super-annoying noise that lasts for four days straight, then die off again until the next election cycle. The 2016 Republican National Convention offered the potential for an especially loud noise: The excitement stemming from the Republicans’ unconventional candidate (“unconventional” being our polite term for “sentient Orange Julius”) led many to anticipate the possibility of a delightfully disorganized freak show. But “unusual candidate” does not alone equal “must-see TV.” Television still requires a good production team to depict the events unfolding. And the RNC went off smoothly, at least on the operational level, give or take a Ted Cruz. Regardless of the political content being delivered (or stolen from Michelle Obama), the execution of the event itself was largely efficient and unsurprising, but most of all, it was devoid of chaotic spectacle—meaning the networks and their talent were left to make hay of the situation. NBC, ABC, and CBS made something more resembling moose doots.
After launching into the opening seconds of their coverage, CBS seemed primed and ready to throw to the opening of Ivanka Trump’s primetime speech, thanks to meticulous coordination on the part of the networks and the convention for that 10 p.m. Eastern start. Instead, the Eye said, “Here we go, welcome to our coverage,” and then immediately decided to see if it could squeeze in a commercial break. Thus, anyone expecting one of America’s oldest TV news institutions to adapt to the needs of a large and lumbering political display instead watched a trailer for some CGI ships.
The networks expected to wrap their dignified pageantry around a crazy Trump spectacle—to look like the grownups in the room. This approach backfired. Their overproduction felt clumsy on top of the sensibly produced show that already existed on the convention floor. CBS’ producers were so impressed with the elaborate bumper its editors assembled that they refused to sacrifice it in order to return quickly to the Ivanka Trump speech—instead cutting in mid-sentence to the address viewers tuned in to watch. The RNC coverage revealed an ironic reality. The big networks may not know how to handle standard political theater anymore, because they insist on blocking the stage—inserting themselves between the viewer and the event. That kind of mediation would be worthwhile if the RNC had turned into the predicted hot mess. When a pretty straightforward convention broke out, CBS et al. didn’t get to ride in on the white horse to rescue the dignity of American discourse.
And it’s the networks’ own fault they’ve forgotten how to cover such a lengthy, stilted affair with any sort of competence or—far worse—fun. Throughout the 2000s, the networks have gradually reduced coverage of the actual conventions, cutting it to just an hour a night—without any supplementary segments on the parties or speakers—starting in 2012. Their defense is that these glorified infomercials get terrible ratings. It’s an odd claim from companies who are given free airwaves worth billions in exchange for supposedly operating in “the public interest,” but then again, the public interest was strangled to death outside a Tampa bathroom back in 1996. (The signing of the Telecommunications Act, for those keeping tally.)
When the broadcast networks picked up coverage for their 60 minutes of civic rectitude at 10 p.m., it was a formal, stilted affair. They lavished attention on heavily edited exercises in branding and then transitioned to subdued hosts with little to offer besides tossing abruptly to convention speakers. The lack of disaster left them bereft of topics of debate. The cable news channels, meanwhile, were filming, and talking, and hosting rambunctious discussions of policy and personality, peppered with healthy doses of absurdity (MSNBC’s Chris Matthews interviewing SNL Weekend Update’s Colin Jost and Michael Che was a highlight). It came across like the desultory Big Three had outsourced coverage of this massive event to their cable brethren and were doomed to wander the halls of the convention center like ghosts, orating meekly into the air like Casper on quaaludes.
Were it not for Melania Trump and Ted Cruz, the traditional networks would have been deprived even the slightest frisson from the proceedings. The furor surrounding her partly plagiarized speech and Cruz’s refusal to endorse Trump (an “enemy of my enemy is my friend” moment for liberals if ever there was one) at least gave them something to talk about. But those blips were a far cry from the mayhem that liberal prognosticators had told us to expect. The candidate didn’t walk out wielding an ax and sever the head of a Mexican immigrant live on the convention floor, and the networks couldn’t figure out how to fill that void.
Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson was the embodiment of the network attitude toward coverage: Resignedly going through the motions of convention patter, he delivered the blandest of platitudes and the most generic of rhetoric, a performance so lackadaisical it would be impossible for lie-detection experts to tell if Hutchinson was conscious. Like the governor, the networks wanted to be anywhere else. So they ran reruns, and promoted their normal drama series, and generally acted as though the whole thing wasn’t happening, save for the fleeting 60 minutes they deigned to bequeath the event. But for political junkies, it was a buyer’s market of entertainment, with each of the cable news channels delivering their own version of political theater absurdism.
This is for the people in the cheap seats
For the cable news networks, every day is a Republican National Convention. They’ve made an industry out of creating something from nothing. One of the best qualities the cable teams possess is their understanding that the background spectacle is often as entertaining as whatever the talking heads are chewing over at any given moment. And the home for high-grade background trolling is MSNBC: Whether on the convention floor, or outside in their elevated rig, seemingly everyone with a yen for mischief took advantage of the left-leaning network’s open-door policy to get their faces on screen. Some were just mildly entertaining, like the mysterious cowboy above, so jazzed to be watching himself on his phone that the off-camera producer had to give him the evil eye twice before he went away. But the best stuff came from the outdoor chaos, where hoi polloi intermingled with delegates, and the fanatical Christian evangelists took special joy in making sure MSNBC’s home audience knew just where they’d be going after death, the plucky cameraman’s efforts to crowd them out be damned:
But each news network is bizarre in its own way. Fox News continues its proud tradition of rolling out old white guys, propping them up in front of the camera, and praying like hell they don’t collapse mid-sentence. In this regard, they don’t have many warhorses in their stable as charisma-free and droning as Charles Krauthammer.
You can see the mischievous joy in Megyn Kelly’s eyes as she lofts a question to Krauthammer about Tiffany Trump’s job of “humanizing” Donald Trump, the anchor doing everything but lick her lips in anticipation of seeing Krauthammer—a wax statue—explain “warm and relatable.” His voice is so monotone and flat, it’s difficult to hear him above the crowd, perhaps because Charles is about as excited as we are to hear what he has to say.
But in the realm of bad sound mixing, CNN remains the alpha and omega. Through no fault of his own, Anderson Cooper spent much of the night as the guy you wish you hadn’t started the conversation with at the party. Not because of anything he was saying, mind you; it’s just that, with the music blaring through any and all CNN mics as loudly as it was, at a certain point you want to excuse yourself and go see if there’s any spinach dip left.
If anything, he deserves bonus points for plowing ahead, despite the terrible sound quality and his nagging suspicion that the Cooper family might be the only ones watching. Poor CNN: They’re actually not that bad most of the time, but when they’re bad, they’re shudderingly, screen-meltingly bad, leaving a foul aftertaste of dryness and Don Lemon incompetence.
In a just world, half of this column would just be filled with Chris Matthews excerpts. He remains the lumbering dinosaur of political talk on cable, stomping all over anyone and everyone, but blissfully free of any nagging sense of decorum or face-to-face politeness, such as you or I may engage in. It’s no secret that, among the A.V. Club staff, editor-in-chief John Teti and I share an unabashed fondness for Matthews, to the point that we’ve made dates to hang out and watch the man pontificate, as though the commercial breaks were going to give us clues to decode Little Orphan Annie’s top-secret messages about Ovaltine. And the truth is, it’s entirely possible Matthews’ entire career has been a long con, delivering critical spy intelligence with every 43rd word. It would certainly go a long way toward justifying some of his tangents. (Look for a story from Teti soon on that delightful windbag.)
But despite the milquetoast display of capitulation on the part of the networks, the overall effect was one of transformation, as Trump went from a punchline and boogeyman to a candidate that every news outlet is now required to treat with the seriousness befitting a presidential candidate from one of the two major political parties. Which is worrying for all sorts of reasons that have been covered in excruciating detail elsewhere. Still, televised punditry is a form of entertainment (not news) in its own right, and the purveyors have developed a variety of tactics—many originated at Fox News—for bringing in and retaining viewers. This convention offered a chance for them to play to their strengths, and with the exception of CNN’s rotten sound mix, most of them delivered. They were the whooping convention-floor crowd to the networks’ sighing, unhappy Paul Ryan, so despondent over the maddening choice of his party’s base that he couldn’t even pronounce Trump’s full name accurately when officially making him the GOP’s standard-bearer.
That dispirited vibe emanating off the speaker of the house is something anyone planning to watch additional network convention coverage should get used to. There’s going to be a lot of it next week, too, as Hillary Clinton and her supporters try to convince Bernie Sanders die-hards that they should sign on the dotted line for another four years of Obama-style, old-school Democratic governing. It’s probably too late, but the networks might want to remember, en route to Philadelphia, that bringing the bold voices and encouraging vibrant debate is supposed to be their job, too.