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Coverage of virtual political party conventions: democracy filtered through a screen | COMMENTARY

CHICAGO - AUGUST 28: 1968 DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION. Dan Rather, center, at the convention center. Image dated August 28, 1968. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)
CHICAGO - AUGUST 28: 1968 DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION. Dan Rather, center, at the convention center. Image dated August 28, 1968. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images) (CBS Photo Archive / CBS via Getty Images)

With media coverage of the Democratic National Convention scheduled to start Monday, most of the advance reporting and analyses are about the ways in which COVID-19 will change it. There is nothing wrong with that. Changes in what viewers will see and hear is certainly one of the bigger stories in advance of an event that has been televised every four years for more than eight decades.

But what I am not seeing is much discussion of the pluses and minuses of those changes and how the reduction in media access might affect democracy and our relationship to the political process.

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It is hard to understand such sociological changes while they are happening, let alone before. There is, however, one obvious shift that leaves me feeling both nostalgic and concerned: the lack of independent, skilled, network correspondents on a packed convention floor pushing for access.

Think of CBS correspondent Dan Rather at the infamous 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago being knocked to the floor by security forces as he shouts, “Take your hands off of me unless you plan to arrest me.”

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And there was NBC’s John Chancellor being arrested on the floor of a raucous 1964 Republican convention saying as he was being hauled off, “This is John Chancellor somewhere in custody.”

I will miss seeing some of the best reporters in the nation trying to bring the voices and faces of the delegates and party operatives to American viewers in real time as those politicos are deciding the future of their party and, perhaps, the country. Like so many things in American life since COVID-19, convention events are going to be mediated and filtered through screens. And the Democratic Party will control the basic feed to those screens.

With all our new technology, there is no shortage of ways to watch. Indeed, the DNC has a video, titled “How to Watch the 2020 Democratic National Convention.” The lineup runs from Amazon Fire TV and Apple TV to Roku and YouTube.

But on every single one of those channels the core of what you will see of the virtual convention is produced and controlled by the Democratic Party with no possibility of the unexpected protest on the floor or scoop with a delegate or party official by a correspondent. Even the reporters and analysts will be separated by screens and, in some cases, will physically be hundreds and thousands of miles from where the DNC-controlled content is being produced and distributed.

On Tuesday, NBC and MSNBC announced their plans for coverage.

Each night of the Democratic convention (Aug. 17-21) and Republican convention (Aug. 24-27), NBC News will air a prime-time report from 10 to 11 p.m. anchored by Lester Holt and Savannah Guthrie in New York with Chuck Todd and Andrea Mitchell in Washington.

MSNBC, meanwhile, will start its nightly coverage at 7 p.m. with “The ReidOut” followed by “All In With Chris Hayes” at 8 p.m.

Starting at 9 p.m., Joy Reid, Rachel Maddow and Nicolle Wallace will host convention coverage with Brian Williams coming on at 11 p.m. and Ari Melber at 1 a.m.

Correspondents will be reporting from around the country throughout the evening.

Along with CNN, C-SPAN and MSNBC will be my go-to channels. I will do most of my streaming at MSNBC and CNN as well. CNN has not yet announced its plans.

Yet for all that journalistic firepower, the channels will mainly be limited for actual event coverage to the feed provided 9 to 11 p.m. each night from the party-controlled convention website.

Understand that I am not criticizing the Democrats. I applaud party leaders for responding responsibly to COVID-19 and using their actions to model safe behavior for the nation. Not having an in-person convention is absolutely the right thing to do.

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But it is important to note that even the best and most righteous actions can have unfavorable consequences. And even when such consequences are unavoidable as they seem to be here, it is important that we understand the cost being paid.

We have been heading in the direction of tightly-scripted, party-controlled, no-surprise events at least since the 1980s when the Republican Party found the perfect Hollywood personality in Ronald Reagan around which to structure what became primarily a prime-time, entertainment production without news. Following that model, most conventions in recent years were little more than staged events.

But at least the press was in the room with its cameras and correspondents instead of on the other side of a screen looking in.

David Zurawik is The Sun’s media critic. Email: david.zurawik@baltsun.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik.

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