The television networks' coverage of the Republican convention raises a number of questions about the influence of the news media on such political events of national importance. Last week's GOP get-together leaves little room to doubt that the national political conventions have become bona fide "media events." The mere fact that some 15,000 accredited representatives of the news media were squeezed into and around the Joe Louis Arena to cover the activities of 1,944 delegates in itself qualifies the four-day convention as a media spectacular.
The problem for television may be that much of the convention agenda is less than spectacular. TV's coverage of any event always has some "show biz" attached to it, and the tendency of anchormen, anchorwomen and reporters is to look for the drama and suspense in any unfolding story -- even if there is little drama and suspense to report.
Admittedly the startling development over the selection of the vice-presidential nominee was legitimate news. But even here network hype and overeagerness to outdo the competition fed frenzy and confusion on the convention floor. Reporters ended up quoting delegates who were quoting reporters.
The question is, who was manipulating whom? Were the networks coaxing Gerald Ford into considering a post suddenly termed that of a "co-president" (but not used by Ford himself)? Or was Ford using Cronkite and Company to turn aside the Reagan offer or to heighten his own prospects of returning to the political arena as a super vice-president? Either way, the disturbing implication was that, instead of merely reporting the events of an otherwise rather uneventful party convention, television itself was participating in and possibly helping to shape the outcome of the convention.
NBC's hiring of presidential candidate John Anderson to provide commentaries on the convention seemed another instance of TV coming too close to influencing the event. Certainly the presence of TV's vast audience was never far from the minds of the convention organizers or its principal performers. This was evident in Governor Reagan's shushing of applause at one point with the warning to conventioneers that valuable prime time was being wasted.
But the Republicans' efforts to rivet public attention on their goings-on were less than a complete success, as indicated by the relatively small TV audience the convention attracted. On the average fewer than 25 percent of the national television viewers were tuned in. Most Americans were rejecting the 10 -million-dollar TV extravaganza and opting for old movies and reruns.
There may be a message in this for both the networks and the two major political parties. The four-day convention schedule, heavy on long-winded speeches that often seemed boring even to the delegates in the hall, needs looking at. With the presidential choice more and more being sewn up in the primaries, and with little real excitement left for the convention, a shorter schedule might well be in order. Barring that, the networks themselves might consider some sort of abbreviated convention coverage. At the very least, they need to be alert to their influence on the nation's political process and strive doubly hard to stay at arm's length from the news they should be reporting -- but not making.