Notes from the First ‘Internet Age’ Political Convention

The Republican Convention 2000 in Philadelphia was supposed to be the first political convention held wholly in the Internet Age, the first to be subject to the scrutiny of 24-hour Web cams and digital wrist cameras, the first to become instant fodder for chat room debates. It was supposed to be thrilling, injecting new hunt into an old dog.

But the Internet convention coverage was a technological embarrassment. Watching the gavel-to-gavel streaming video, for example, was about as pleasurable as being tied in an upright chair and forced to view scratchy home movies all night long — reel after reel of the most boring family on the block.

If that’s all there is, my friend, to the most modern, up-to-the-nano-second, cutting edge new media experience, I can safely say the only “interactive kiosk” I want to visit from now on is a hot dog stand. At least until broadband arrives — hopefully by 2004 — and makes the glitch-filled exercise in Philadelphia look like a dress rehearsal. See you next time.

Halftime Fare

The new media enthusiasts seemed to forget one critical fact when they spread all the hype around: The modern political convention lacks drama. Average Americans are used to getting some entertainment value with their news, and today’s political convention is about as gripping as an infomercial.

The presidential candidates of both parties were chosen months ago, so the conventions are little more than bland coming-out parties designed to supply a boost in the polls as they enter the home stretch of the campaign. They offer up less suspense than a typical movie-of-the-week, but with inferior production values and, sadly, no Loni Anderson.

That’s why the networks have given up on them; ABC covered the opening night of the GOP convention during halftime of a football game. It plans to do the same for the Democrats.

A Shining Example

So there wasn’t much to work with inside the Philadelphia convention hall, a fact made more obvious as the media horde badgered the 4,100 delegates to cough up something other than an echo of the same tired party line. But the networks and mainstream reporters did a disservice to the public by adopting a yawning attitude toward the event. Just because the GOP decided to serve up the same old dish, it did not follow that there was nothing else on the menu.

Fortunately, at least one of the new media outfits supplied an example of good, energetic journalism. The Philadelphia Independent Media Center provided the only reporting that came close to showing the potential of the Internet to operate outside the box. The not-for-profit organization accomplished that feat by using the democratic principles the Internet encourages while doing the only thing possible to find news — leaving the convention hall.

The IMC provided ongoing, in-depth coverage of the dozens of passionate street protests that resulted in hundreds of people being carted off to jail.

Simple, Relevant Themes

It is true that if one political convention looks like another, then one political protest can look like another. And if your political leanings are a little to the right, you might have found the IMC’s coverage insulting, irrelevant or both.

But to others, the vehement outpouring of emotion on the part of working-class Philadelphians over the anti-labor policies of the Republican party provided an interesting sub-plot for a bland feature presentation.

The Philadelphia demonstrations differed from the protests that marred the WTO meetings in Seattle and the World Bank/International Monetary Fund meetings in Washington, D.C. While those disruptions were precipitated by dissent on somewhat hazy global issues, the protests in Philadelphia called attention to starkly clear and relevant themes appropriate for the occasion of a Republican convention.

The demonstraters railed against poverty, homelessness, lack of health care, and discrimination toward minorities — some of the critical issues the “compassionate conservative” Republicans have been saying they want to tackle.

Motley Collection of Independents

The Philadelphia IMC was formed specifically to report on the demonstrations in Philadelphia, following the events that took place in the streets during the WTO and World Bank/IMF affairs.

“The Philadelphia IMC was formed to provide an alternative to the inevitably and unavoidably biased corporate media coverage of the GOP convention,” the IMC site says.

The IMC is a collection of independent journalists and news organizations and anyone else who wants to get involved. Anyone could have posted a news story to the site. The front page stories that got the most play, and therefore the most readership, were decided by an “editorial collective” that was open to public participation.

The Un-Convention

Among the headlines and links on the site’s front page are: “Call to Action,” “Torturous conditions in Philly jail,” and “The Media only tell you what they want you to know.”

The IMC featured 24-hour Web radio and produced two daily TV news shows via a satellite donated by Free Speech TV. The name of its online newspaper is “The Un-Convention.”

While the IMC did not report anything as compelling as the violent upheaval of the 1968 Democratic Convention, for many, the coverage of the action in Philadelphia’s streets hit closer to home than what was said behind the podium in the convention hall.

The big Year 2000 Internet revolution that was supposed to change journalism and politics never came off. But the first shot was fired by a revolutionary little news site got that did something truly different in political convention coverage: It got off its duff and followed the scent of real news.

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