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Jewish World Review August 14, 2000 /13 Menachem-Av, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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The other convention -- LOS ANGELES | The most difficult thing for someone here to watch the convention is to watch the convention -- rather than the commentary on it.

Commentary fills the newspapers and newsmagazines, overflowing the editorial and opinion pages. It waits for you at registration desks and lands outside your hotel room every morning with the day's papers. It seeps steadily into the news columns till there is little distinction between news and opinion.

Here's one way print has caught up to radio and television. It's now as hard to tell where news ends and opinion begins in the Washington Post or New York Times as on CBS or NPR, aka National Propaganda Radio.

All the commentary falls like a soft but endless snow, blurring the outlines of the convention itself, till it assumes strange, even bizarre shapes.

Once you move beyond C-SPAN's complete and completely deadpan coverage, opinions about it take the place of the convention itself. Political discourse becomes not a debate over policies and ideas, but between dueling versions of reality.

Which is why, when covering a convention, I try not to read the out-of-town papers or watch the talking heads. But they're ubiquitous, crowding out the event itself with their perceptions of it. To ignore them entirely is impossible; they lie in wait on the newsstand, on the next channel and often in the aisle of the convention itself.

But with a little self-discipline, and awareness, the shaky wall between what's happening and what we're told is happening may be maintained.

But the herd instinct is strong. The usual polspeak infiltrates your vocabulary. You begin thinking in cliches. Certain telltale phrases wait to be plugged into your prose any time vigilance lags: gender gap, gravitas, momentum, solidifying the base. ... until thought is replaced with platitude. And the conventions become an exercise in banality.

But vigilance has its rewards. The great advantage of ignoring commentary during a convention is getting to read it afterward. Much like a drama critic's reading the other reviews of opening night after he's got his done. You get to see the show a second time, and it's a whole different performance.

Even now the New York Times begins to pile up on my desk back home, and I can view a whole different convention on my return. It's like two conventions for the price of one -- a kind of double vision. It's a little dizzying. One wonders: Can these people have been at the same convention?

Perception is reality, somebody once said. Somebody was wrong. Perception is only perception, but it is fun. Think of Alice stepping through the looking glass and seeing the same reality reversed.

For example, there on the front page of the Times one day, the right-hand lede actually, where the innocent reader might have expected news, was Johnny Apple's paragraph-by-paragraph rebuttal of George W. Bush's acceptance speech. He's a reporter who likes to argue with the speaker he's covering, Like so:

"He mocked Mr. Gore by saying, `I do not need to take your pulse before I know my own mind. I do not reinvent myself at every turn. I am not running in borrowed clothes.' Yet Mr. Bush has been successively moderate, conservative and moderate again, as the nominating campaign progressed.''

Really? It doesn't seem to have occurred to the reporter that it is (ital)his(unital) perspective that has changed. When the alternative was Steve Forbes, W. appeared moderate. When he was running against John McCain, he seemed the more conservative choice. Now, running against Al Gore, he appears moderate again. And all without any essential change in the policies he's proposed or the values he's espoused.

There is a theory of relativity in politics, too, as this "news story'' by the Times' most effective editorial writer demonstrates.

And why must George W.'s promise not to change his persona with the changing times be aimed only at Al Gore, who is about to reintroduce himself once again at this convention? And not at the master of reflective politics, our president and empath-in-chief who feels our pain? Or the whole culture of poll-driven politicians?

The subtext of the Times' commentary-as-news isn't very sub: Conservative, bad. Moderate, good. Liberal, unmentionable. Note the assumptions behnd this single paragraph:

"In a striking passage, he (George W. Bush) told the strongly conservative Republican gathering, hostile to most new government initiatives, that he intended `to extend the promise of prosperity to every corner of the country.' ''

To put the Times' syllogism plain: Conservatives are opposed to more government programs; the only way to extend prosperity is through more government programs; therefore conservatives are against extending prosperity. That's what made George W.'s promise "striking.'' If only to R. W. Apple, Jr.

There'll be a lot of partisan rhetoric at this convention, but none so effective as the kind disguised as news.

It'll be fascinating this week to watch Al Gore begin to come from behind, for there is no greater test of character than adversity.

But the most intriguing part of this convention will be the entirely different one being described on the tube. Or in the news columns of the New York Times, which is where its really strong opinions appear.

I can hardly wait till I come back and get to read all about the other convention.

Paul Greenberg Archives


©2000, Los Angeles Times Syndicate