Convention coverage: TV's trivia pursuit

Having watched the Democratic convention on TV, I have a theory: The usefulness of the coverage is in inverse proportion to the amount of money a network spends; or, the more money, the less useful.

This, of course, is contrary to everything we in Washington usually say about television - if only the networks would invest as much in public-affairs broadcasting as they do in entertainment....

The reason that more is not better in the case of presidential nominating conventions, however, is that their outcomes are no longer news.

The first conventions I attended - the 1952 Republican (Ike vs. Taft) and Democratic (Adlai vs. Kefauver) - were the last conventions in which we did not know who would win when we entered the hall.

That conventions now merely confirm decisions made earlier is because of changes in the parties' rules, not because of television. The networks were quite right to end gavel-to-gavel coverage.

Yet having brought all that talent to San Francisco to perform for a few hours - all the anchor men, commentators, reporters, consultants, pollsters, producers, camera crews, writers, researchers - the networks seem to feel they must justify the expense.

All of these talented people are busy generating ''stories,'' even in the absence of news. All of these high-priced egos are competing for air time, even when they have nothing to say.

The job of producers becomes one of organizational maintenance, balancing the internal needs of each news bureaucracy. They do this by showing reporters asking nonquestions of delegates who reply in nonanswers, by showing political experts offering opinions on the unknowable, and by anchor men reciting arcane facts that have been prepared for them by writers and researchers.

So what? We are free to switch to an old movie. But there is a loss. This is the one sustained period every fourth year when national attention can be focused on the people and ideas that our major political parties think are important enough to deserve our support.

While the TV journalists are engaged in their own form of trivia pursuit, we are being denied the proceedings of the convention. An anchor man tells us, almost as an aside, that George McGovern is speaking, but we hear the anchor man speaking, not George McGovern.

The result is also that the networks appear arrogant. The subliminal message is that TV people think what they have to say is more important than the words of the people they are suppposedly there to cover.

My advice is too late to help the beleaguered Democrats. Still, I do hope that when Dan Rather and his executive producer get to Dallas they will let us hear Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Howard Baker, Robert Dole, Jack Kemp, and the others who shape the directions of the Republican Party.

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