Black Reporters Should Attend Political Conventions

by Harrison Chastang on August 6, 2008

Chronicle editorial writer Caille Millner says in her Monday column that she’s not going to the upcoming Democratic and Republican conventions, and she’s glad she’s not going. Millner implies that as a journalist she need not go to the conventions because, to paraphrase former ABC News anchor Ted Koppel’s assessment of one particularly boring and over scripted GOP convention, there will be no news there. At least Koppel made that observation when he was at the convention. Millner’s assumes nothing will happen at the convention that will be more newsworthy than the subprime mortgage crisis, record high gas prices or other top stories listed in her article. The first rule of sports journalism is that anything can happen so that’s why reporters need to cover every game, and stay at the game until the last out or final second of the game. Not going to the conventions would be like a sports reporter skipping a game of two last place baseball teams, only to miss a no-hit perfect game. Millner probably would have written an editorial saying she was skipping the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago because there were more important things happening in the country.

Millner fails to realize that if nothing else happens at the Democratic convention, the fact that the first African American will accept the nomination of a major political party is very important to many Americans, particularly African Americans who see the Barack Obama nomination as historically significant as Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech King gave 40 years to the day Obama will give his nomination speech. Thousands of African Americans who usually have no interest in political conventions plan to be in Denver just to say they were in the same city where Obama will be nominated and to be among the thousands of people to see and hear Obama’s acceptance speech in person at Denver’s Invesco Field.

It’s unfortunate that Millner will not be in Denver to provide coverage of the convention from the perspective of one of the few Black journalists left at the Chronicle. At last count Millner, reporter Leslie Fulbright, columnist Chip Johnson and Style writer Shelah Moody are the only African American writers left at the Chronicle … Oh, I forget new Chronicle columnist Willie Brown … Maybe that’s why Millner’s not going.

One wonders if Millner’s acknowledgement that she’s not going to the conventions has more to do with the current financial situation of the newspaper industry in general, particularly at the Chronicle, where it’s been announced that management will ask 125 more employees to accept buyouts or take forced layoffs. Many top Chronicle writers who covered the 2004 conventions like former Chronicle Washington correspondent Marc Sandalow won’t be writing for the Chronicle from Denver since they’ve accepted buyouts and are no longer with the paper. Millner may or may not be one of the 125 Chronicle employees who will be asked this Friday to leave the paper. If the Chronicle’s picking up Willie’s tab for the convention, the Chronicle probably can’t afford to send Millner or any other reporters to Denver.

Much has been made of the decision by media outlets, particularly Black owned newspapers, American Urban Radio Network and African American TV networks BET and Media One, to cover the Denver Democratic convention but not the Republican convention in St. Paul. Conservative pundits claim that race and close political ties between African Americans and the Democratic Party are the reasons why Black owned papers and broadcasters are covering the Democratic convention but not the GOP convention.

The reality is that money and logistics are the factors in determining what conventions to cover. Nearly every major media organization have reduced the number of reports covering this year’s political conventions, particularly since travel and production costs of covering the 2008 political conventions are more expensive in past years. A small radio station has to pay nearly $3000 to have two electric outlets and a broadcast quality phone line installed in 4 x 4 foot space to broadcast during the four days of the convention. PG&E and AT&T would charge no more than $300 for a similar installation. The production costs for major television companies like BET and Black owned Media One to cover both the Republican and Democratic conventions could run into the millions of dollars.

Media managers say the logistics of this year’s convention has forced many newspapers and broadcasters to choose to between the Democratic and Republican conventions. Traditionally the Democratic and Republican conventions are at least two weeks apart, enough time for broadcasters and newspapers to move the skyboxes, newsroom workspaces and tons of broadcast equipment to the next convention site and for reporters to see families and get a little R&R before the next convention.

This year, three days separate the Democratic and Republican conventions, with the GOP convention opening on Labor Day. The narrow time frame between conventions means that television networks covering the Democratic convention need to have a second set of skyboxes, camera setups and newsrooms ready to go in St. Paul rather than moving the gear used at the Denver convention to St. Paul. The high costs of covering both the Democratic and Republican has forced many publishers, station owners and cable operators to decide whether to cover just one convention or not cover any of the conventions.

Newsworthiness is a factor in allocating valuable resources to news coverage, and that applies to decisions regarding convention coverage. Most California newspapers have closed overseas and Washington bureaus and send reporters to Sacramento as needed instead of maintaining a Sacramento bureau. On the sports side, many papers that would send reporters and photographers to road games are now using wire copy and photos.

Democratic convention is important to BET, Media One and the American Urban Radio Network not only because of Obama, but because every Black member of Congress is a Democratic convention delegate and one third of Democratic convention delegates are African American. One of the top issues that will be discussed at this year’s Democratic convention is the controversial party rules allowing New Hampshire and Iowa to hold the first primaries, polices many African Americans believe are unfair to states with large Black populations.

The GOP convention holds less interest for African Americans. Few African American delegates will be attending the Republican Convention and outside of a possible Vice Presidential nomination of an African American like Condoleezza Rice, there probably won’t be any news of significance to African Americans coming from the GOP convention compared to the Democratic convention.

Should Black media outlets cover both the Democratic and Republican conventions? Yes they should because reporters from the Black press should attend events where they can ask Republicans, including Black Republicans like Condoleezza, Ward Connerly and Colin Powell tough questions they don’t usually receive from the mainstream media. Given the media’s budget constraints, the Black press is going to cover the convention that’s going to be of the most importance to their listeners, readers and viewers.

Ms. Millner should reconsider her decision not to cover the conventions. She might just find a story in Denver worth reporting.

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