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Conventions are infomercials that matter

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    Aug. 25, 2012: Mitt Romney listens as vice presidential running mate Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., not pictured, speaks during a campaign rally in Powell, Ohio. (AP)

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    Aug. 25, 2012: Mitt Romney speaks as vice presidential running mate Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., listens during a campaign rally in Powell, Ohio. (AP)

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    El candidato presidencial republicano Mitt Romney estrecha manos durante un acto electoral, jueves 23 de agosto de 2012, en Hobbs, Nuevo México. La Agenda Nacional de Liderazgo Hispano una asociación de 31 organizaciones hispanas de derechos civiles, presentò a los candidatos presidenciales de ambos partidos una agenda con 40 páginas de propuestas de cambios, metas y mejoras para implementar en el terreno ejecutivo, legislativo y judicial. (AP Foto/Evan Vucci)

With the Republican and Democratic National Conventions about to dominate the news over the next two weeks, we are being treated to the quadrennial media chant that they are just a vulgar and garish waste of time and money because we already know who is going to be nominated.

A recent headline at Politico asked if party conventions have “fizzled out.”

But convention cynicism is not limited to the big national political media.  Local reporters and columnists have caught the bug.

“Rigged extravaganzas,” sneered San Angelo (Texas) Standard-Times columnist Britt Towery.

If the conventions have “fizzled out,” and are little more than “rigged extravaganzas,” then why have 12,000 media credentials been issued for the GOP Convention in Tampa, and a similar number expected to be given out for the Democratic gathering a week later in Charlotte, NC?

Why would the media spend millions of dollars and thousands of hours covering the conventions if they are useless anachronisms? Why? Because they are not.

It is indeed true that the drama of not knowing who the party leaders will select as the presidential and vice presidential candidates, is gone, and has been for the past four decades.One exception: There was a brief flurry of uncertainty leading up to the 1976 Republican Convention in Kansas City when Ronald Reagan unsuccessfully challenged President Ford for the GOP nomination. 

However, drama aside, the conventions do provide a valuable resource for voters seeking to learn more about the parties, the issues, the candidates and what they stand for and against. They also provide a showcase for the parties and the candidates to define, sharpen and fine tune their images and messages. How skillfully they do that can be pivotal for the election.

In short, think of each convention as one huge infomercial for voters, many of whom are just starting to dip their toes into the 2012 political waters and want more information. If they tune in to the broadcasts and read the coverage, they will learn more. And there is little need to worry about voters being brainwashed by the partisan messages being spun by the candidates and their surrogates.  The thousands of media representatives are there to provide wave upon wave of analysis and commentary, sometimes to the point of nausea. Even radio talk show hosts will be broadcasting from the conventions. And a gaggle of online bloggers, Tweeters and Facebook devotees will be there adding nonstop remarks. So too will protesters of all stripes.

The only place to get unvarnished gavel-to-gavel coverage of every speech from the convention podiums without the commentary is C-Span. But not many people tune in there compared to the cable news networks – Fox News, CNN and MSNBC -- which are loaded with commentary and analysis, and the broadcast news networks – ABC, NBC and CBS.  The big TV networks, once the staple of convention coverage -- remember NBC’s Huntley and Brinkley and CBS’s Walter Cronkite hosting conventions gavel-to-gavel? --  have cut their nightly broadcasts to one-hour summaries. That’s largely due to shrinking audiences peeled away by cable networks and all the other media, old and new, providing coverage.

But who says nothing important or surprising happens at the conventions?  History tells us otherwise:

• The riot-torn1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago was the catalyst that forever took away from party bosses the selection of candidates and put it into the hands of voters in a series of coast-to-coast primaries. That relegated the conventions to mere rubber stamps. Few will recall that Hubert Humphrey gained the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968 without running in a single primary.  That’s a big reasons young people in the streets were rioting. They felt anti-Vietnam candidates Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern, who ran in primaries, were being shut out. Humphrey lost that election.

• In 1980, the big news out of the Democratic Convention in New York City was the split in the party between backers of President Carter and Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy, who challenged Carter in the primaries and lost.  At the convention, Kennedy overshadowed Carter by making an electrifying speech that caused many delegates to leave Madison Square Garden thinking they nominated the wrong man. Carter lost the election.

• In 1992, conservative commentator Pat Buchanan, who unsuccessfully ran against incumbent President George H.W. Bush in the primaries, made a speech at the GOP Convention in Houston declaring that Republicans were in “…a religious war …for the soul of America.” The speech pleased the GOP’s right wing. But it set a divisive tone for convention coverage and put the more-moderate Bush on the defensive. Bush lost the election.

• Also in 1992, then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton entered the Democratic Convention in New York City in third place in the polls, behind Bush and independent Ross Perot. But Perot dropped out of the race as the convention was about to begin, sharpening focus on Clinton and boosting him – with the help a Hollywood-produced video outlining his life (“The Man From Hope”) – to leave the convention in first place.  He never relinquished that lead, even after Perot re-entered the race in October.

• In 2000, then-Vice President Al Gore got a big boost in the polls after the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles, made memorable by his passionate full-mouthed kiss wife Tipper after she introduced him for his acceptance speech.

• And it was the 2004 Democratic Convention in Boston that introduced the nation to a skinny U.S. Senate candidate from Illinois who made an electrifying keynote speech that stressed national unity: “There's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America…There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America.”  His name is Barack Obama, and four years later he was elected president.

So based upon those examples alone, and there are many others, conventions are not only important as sources of voter information, albeit partisan, but also often act as turning points or defining moments in the campaigns, current and future. Let the naysayers carp. I’m tuning in.   

Richard Benedetto is a retired USA Today White House correspondent and columnist. He now teaches politics and journalism at American University and in the Fund for American Studies program at Georgetown University.  As a reporter, Benedetto covered every presidential campaign since 1984.