The Democratic National Convention transformed the Pepsi Center into a media echo chamber.
Judging by coverage of the 2008 Democratic National Convention, the Pepsi Center never stopped hopping throughout the August 25-28 event. But upon arriving at the arena prior to 8 a.m. on day two, I learned otherwise.
Granted, radio row, an escalator ride from the lobby, was busy, with local broadcasters competing with their regional and national peers for guests — and supplies occasionally ran short. Indeed, when I stopped by to say "hello" to AM 760's Jay Marvin, he invited me to chat on air a few minutes down the line. Lucky for him that by the time I returned to do my bit, he'd managed to line up a former White House something-or-other to fill the slot.
Upstairs, however, the action lagged. The top floor was virtually deserted, and because numerous coolers behind vendors' stands hadn't been locked, anyone who ventured to that altitude could've grabbed all the sodas he wanted for free, as opposed to paying $4 for them on the main concourse. Ditto the club level, home to most of the TV operations. No one guarded the doors, and while that may not have been a safety risk due to the multiple security checks required for anyone to get into the building, it did leave open the possibility of, say, a drunken delegate bursting into the CNN booth and smooching Wolf Blitzer while cameras rolled.
Not that I came upon any members of the funny-hat contingent then. During a walk along the dimly lit perimeter hallway, I only encountered one person: Dick Wadhams, head of the Colorado Republican Party. When I asked him what he'd thought of the previous night's festivities, capped by appearances from ailing Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy and Michelle Obama, wife of Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama, Wadhams, who'd just guested on Channel 31, called it "great theater," and he should know. The skillful way he recently goaded Dems into publicizing his criticism of their own candidate, senatorial hopeful Mark Udall, simply by uttering the word "ass" was straight out of a restoration comedy.
The laughs continued that evening, albeit in a very different way. Despite wearing a pass that should have limited my access to a press-row section in the bleachers, I had no difficulty making my way onto the floor, which would have resembled a mosh pit at a modern-rock concert if a substantial percentage of the scrum's participants hadn't been in danger of breaking a hip. As we inched around the arena, unable to hear or focus on speakers such as keynoter Mark Warner or Ohio governor Ted Strickland, we passed platforms affiliated with CNN, CBS, NBC, Fox News and so on, and none of the broadcasters sitting on them appeared to be paying much attention, either. The likes of Shepard Smith and David Gregory had their backs to the podium — a setup that demoted the convention's activities from foreground to backdrop even as it made the TV types seem like exhibits at a very popular zoo. Which, in a way, they were. Whenever they stepped off their perch, they'd be mobbed just like Anne Hathaway, Ben Affleck or any of the other notables in town for the convention. (I saw one delegate proudly wearing a hat marked by a Katie Couric autograph.) They couldn't cover the DNC as journalists in the traditional sense; their celebrity made that virtually impossible. Instead, they served as icons whose presence symbolized the importance of the proceedings.
Of course, the DNC's significance is open to the sort of debate that once took place at political conventions but doesn't anymore — at least not in view of cameras. Spending time at the Pepsi Center gave me a firsthand look at the meticulous preparation at the DNC's heart. Just prior to any major address, yellow-smocked volunteers materialized to hand out items for attendees to wave — so many, in fact, that I wound up with a swell collection of memorabilia, including numerous American flags, signature Hillary Clinton placards, oversized signs reading "UNITY" on one side and either "HILLARY" or "OBAMA" on the other, multiple blue banners emblazoned with variations on the word "change," and a Republican-red one reading, "McCAIN: MORE OF THE SAME." Given the military precision with which they were distributed, it's difficult to believe that the party ordered these items to be manufactured at the last minute — meaning that all of the speculation by network correspondents, anchors and pundits about behind-the-scenes deals between Clinton and Obama over the orchestration of DNC events probably had more to do with the Dems wanting to keep the networks interested by pumping up some drama than with anything actually occurring behind the scenes.
Similarly, hype suggesting that Denver would experience the sort of mayhem Seattle underwent circa 1999 in conjunction with World Trade Organization meetings there turned out to be overstated. The number and scope of problematic protest-related incidents failed to reach anything close to a tipping point. In retrospect, news agencies erred in portraying routine posturing by protest groups and official agencies as intimations of the apocalypse.
Nevertheless, the Denver media acquitted itself well during the convention — especially the daily papers, which had their best week in recent memory. I feared the worst from these publications given some of the material published in advance — like James Meadow's self-satirizing "Civic Center Blues" series in the Rocky Mountain News, in which he wrote on a daily basis about human waste, pigeon crap and other unpleasantries in an effort to get the City of Denver to launch a park cleanup officials would have undoubtedly undertaken anyway. But instead of using stuff like this to pad out disposable wrap-around sections of the sort they produced during last year's World Series, the Rocky and the Denver Post came up with plenty of truly substantive and wide-ranging reports about every aspect of the convention, from Pepsi Center doings to protests and the impact on merchants. These were editions to savor, not idly flip through.
True, a lot of the celebrity coverage was breathless to the point of hyperventilation, not to mention frequently inaccurate. For instance, the Post's Bill Husted boasted on and off for months about his "scoop" that Bruce Springsteen would be the warm-up act for Obama at his August 28 Invesco Field at Mile High acceptance speech — an assertion that produced an inevitable letdown for attendees when the last musical act turned out to be (shudder) former Doobie Brothers member Michael McDonald.
Since then, the city's come back to earth, and the descent was a fast one. On August 29, when Democrats had hoped coverage nationwide would be dominated by reviews and conversations about Obama's spectacular Mile High salute, the airwaves instead vibrated with the news that Republican presidential nominee John McCain had named Alaska governor Sarah Palin, a virtual unknown on the national political stage (not to mention a fan of eating moose, according to the Wall Street Journal), as his running mate.
So long, Denver headlines — and so long to huge exposure for Denver-area personalities. Suddenly, everyone from Governor Bill Ritter and Mayor John Hickenlooper to Re-create 68's Glenn Spagnuolo was forced to go through the sort of comedown regularly experienced by reality-show contestants after their episodes stop screening and the next cast is installed. As for the daily newspapers, their page counts, which increased in a big way during the DNC, quickly slid to roughly the point where they'd been prior to the convention, and that will only fuel continuing rumors about one of them shutting down in the near future. The gossip reached such a volume over the past month that on August 22, Post editor Greg Moore issued an internal memo reassuring his staff that "if a paper ceases publication, it will not be the Denver Post."
Whatever the case, the Denver media must learn to move forward without the crutch of Democratic National Convention stories, and it won't be easy. After all, the Pepsi Center is no longer the center of the universe — and until the basketball and hockey seasons get under way, nothing interesting will be happening there on any level.
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