Well, that was … different.
And this time, different was good, different was effective. This time, different worked.
Monday night’s opening of the Democratic National Convention felt like a TV show. Then again, let’s be honest, the national conventions have always been made-for-TV events.
But this time around, with the coronavirus turning the convention into a mostly-virtual event full of taped speeches and highly produced videos, it felt like a variety show. Smoothly hosted by actress Eva Longoria, the tightly-edited, fast-paced show had celebrities, music videos and a series of powerful speeches.
Then the last 15 minutes turned into a full-fledged political fight because of a devastating speech delivered by former first lady Michelle Obama.
“I’ve never heard a first lady speak about a sitting president of the United States the way Michelle Obama did,” CNN’s Wolf Blitzer said moments after the conclusion of the first night of the DNC.
Let’s start, however, with the night as a whole. Thanks to obvious meticulous planning, the Democrats took a virtual convention and turned into an actual success by leaning into the advantages of a convention not confined to a convention hall.
There were videos featuring Joe Biden, including one with Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising” playing under it. There were other music videos, featuring the likes of Maggie Rogers and Leon Bridges. There were speeches of popular politicians, such as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. But there also were moments of so-called “regular people” who told their stories of why Biden is the future. That included a heartbreaking testimonial from a woman whose father voted for Trump and died of the coronavirus, in part, she said, because he listened to Trump downplaying the virus.
That was the most impactful moment of the night.
Until Michelle Obama spoke in a taped speech.
CNN’s Van Jones called it an “extraordinary speech,” adding, “She was not just trying to put the president down, she was picking the country up.”
But make no mistake, she put down President Donald Trump.
“Donald Trump is the wrong president for our country,” she said. “He has had more than enough time to prove that he can do the job, but he is clearly in over his head. He cannot meet this moment. He simply cannot be who we need him to be for us. It is what it is.”
It is what it is — an obvious reference to Trump’s answer to a question about the coronavirus.
ABC’s Byron Pitts called it the third-most important speech of the week, presumably behind Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. He called Michelle Obama “the cool aunt, everybody’s favorite aunt.”
But part of her speech was more like that of a mother, imploring that the office of the president be reserved for someone with empathy — something she insists Trump lacks and Biden has. In this moment, the speech felt much more intimate and, therefore, much more effective than had it been delivered in a huge convention hall with thousands of people. Her anger, her grace, her passion and compassion and every other emotion was especially felt because of the format.
Fox News’ Dana Perino said, “(It’s) very difficult to connect with an audience without an actual audience there with you, but she has the ability to connect with people through the screen. You got the sense when you talk about authenticity, she has it in spades. She has that voice, she has clarity and she knows what she was out there wanting to do.”
Her colleague, Chris Wallace, said, “She really flayed, sliced and diced Donald Trump talking about the chaos and confusion and lack of empathy especially coming from this president and this White House. … This was a very effective speech.”
This is an unusual convention that could result in disconnect and ambivalence from the audience. However, through one night, the Democrats figured out how to make it work and connect with their audience. Now can they keep it going for three more nights?
What about the networks?
The networks adjusted fairly well to the new format of the convention, which cannot be easy. These are whole new challenges. But the networks, as well as the cable news stations, were up to the challenge, with smart analysis in between the speeches.
Marc Burstein, senior executive producer/ABC News special events, told me, “While they may lack the spectacle of past conventions, given the serious issues of the pandemic, the economy and racial justice, that both parties must address, I expect both of these conventions to be as substantive as any time before.”
That was certainly true Monday.
Rashida Jones, senior vice president at NBC News and MSNBC, told me, “The venues will look like nothing you’ve ever seen on a convention night, but the journalism remains at the center. We have an incredibly deep bench of experts, veteran anchors and reporters to keep our audience informed across NBC, MSNBC and streaming on NBC News NOW. We’ll cover the big speeches each night and offer the audience important context, perspective and analysis through both weeks of convention coverage.”
So far away
There are many noticeable differences between the TV coverage of a typical convention and what we’re seeing this year. One of those is seeing the anchors in studios instead of the convention halls.
“NBC Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt, who is co-anchoring the NBC convention coverage, told Time Magazine’s Philip Elliott one of the main drawbacks of not being there.
“Well, it’s particularly strange for me, because one of the hallmarks at ‘Nightly News’ is that I like to take viewers to the story,” Holt said. “I want to talk to people. I want to bring a personal connection to the story. And, of course, we have lost that ability on a lot of the things we cover. Part of conventions are the conversations in the hallway, it’s the people you run into. You pick up little nuggets along the way. This is going to be very different watching in a studio people who may be giving speeches from their living rooms or their kitchens.”
The biggest slam of the night — well, aside from Michelle Obama’s speech — was delivered by former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Appearing on ABC’s coverage of the convention, Christie was asked about lifelong Republican and former Ohio Gov. John Kasich appearing at the DNC.
“He’s a backstabber and he’s an untruthful guy,” Christie said. “Republicans are going to look at that and go, ‘You can have him. … Give us a break and get him out of our party. You take him for a little while.’ On top of all that, I’ve worked with John a lot. He’s exhausting. Joe Biden is going to be getting calls from John Kasich. He’s going to want to change his phone number.”
Political analyst and Democrat Yvette Simpson followed Christie and said, “I agree with the governor. We don’t want him either.”
It was one of the more entertaining exchanges of the night.
Thoughts that popped into my head watching Monday night’s DNC
- As the Democratic National Convention officially kicked off with an opening message from actress Eva Longoria and a taped message, Fox News showed “Hannity,” and talked about the protests in Portland and other Republican talking points. I get it: Sean Hannity is Fox News’ biggest star, his show draws big cable TV numbers and the typical Fox News viewer would rather watch Hannity than the DNC. But, still, you would think that for at least the opening moments of the opening night, Fox News — for credibility’s sake — would show the DNC. However, it should be pointed out that PBS’s coverage returned to panel discussions after the national anthem and invocation opening. In fact, PBS spent much of their coverage with panel discussions when there weren’t big speeches
- Having said that, let’s keep an eye on what MSNBC does next week with the Republican convention.
- Fox News did cut away from Hannity’s show to listen to George Floyd’s family speak and to honor a moment of silence in his memory.
- One of the advantages of having the White House is going second in the conventions. That might be especially advantageous in 2020 with these unprecedented conventions. Although you would think that pretty much all of the Republicans’ plans have to be in place at this point, they might be able to watch what the Democrats do this week — what works and what doesn’t with a mostly virtual convention — and make a few last-minute adjustments.
Plan your vote
Smart stuff here from NBC News and MSNBC: They’ve launched something called “Plan Your Vote.” It’s a state-by-state interactive digital guide that helps voters figure out how to vote this year. It goes through each state and tells voters about deadlines for mail-in voting, how voters can track their mail-in votes, absentee voting, and other questions about in-person voting, including about photo IDs. There’s also a PSA featuring NBC News/MSNBC on-air personalities, including Lester Holt and Joy Reid.
NBC News chief marketing officer Aaron Taylor told AdWeek, “We wanted to, in a non-partisan way, inform and educate viewers and let them know that they need a game plan if they’re going to be able to vote safely, and if they’re going to be able to vote in time so that their votes are counted. Instead of just trying to figure out what our ‘Rock the Vote’ was, we had the opportunity to provide a service.”
A monumental anniversary
Today is the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment. To celebrate, The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina, launched “We the Women” — a video and podcast series featuring interviews with 19 influential women in South Carolina. Cool idea, and one that’s not too late for other news organizations to try in the few months left in 2020 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment.
Watch your language
The Daily Tar Heel, the independent student newspaper at the University of North Carolina, drew a lot of attention Monday for an R-rated headline on an editorial talking about how COVID-19 clusters — five or more confirmed cases in close proximity to each other — are causing problems at the school. The print headline featured the F-word (you can see it here), as did the subhead of the online version.
If the point was to create a stir and show outrage for a unique and dangerous situation, you could argue that it worked, because lots of people (including me in this newsletter) are talking about it. Perhaps the fact that it is a once-in-a-hundred-year pandemic makes it important enough to break the rules of tradition and decency and go for the shock value. Also, another argument for signing off on such a headline is that this is a news outlet for students and those associated with a university and not what you might traditionally call a “family newspaper.” So it’s not as if they are exposing kids to that kind of language.
I’m sure to be accused of being a prude, but I didn’t care for the cursing. Those at The Daily Tar Heel are journalists who are training to carefully use language to pass along important information. While all of us are tempted at one time or another to drop in a curse word — and sometimes it feels as if using a swear word is truly the only way to accurately describe something — these young journalists needed to avoid the lazy choice and, instead, dig deeper to find the appropriate words to get their point across. Another thought: Did the conversation about the use of a curse word actually overshadow the message it was trying to convey?
Is it the crime of the century? Of course not. And I might be in the minority on this. But I’ll add this: I hope they find it was worth it because it cannot be done again. Once is shocking. Doing it again would lose all impact.
On the other hand …
I asked my colleague Barbara Allen, Poynter’s director of college programming and author of the Alma Matters newsletter, what she thought of The Daily Tar Heel headline, and she was fully in support of the students and their decision. Here’s what she wrote:
Is it shocking to see the F-word in print in a newspaper? Yes. Is it justifiable? Yes.
The Daily Tar Heel is one of the nation’s preeminent student publications, with a rich history and excellent professional leadership. This wasn’t some flippant 18-year-old headline writer. This was a group effort by the entire DTH editorial staff to use a shocking play-on word in a desperate attempt to get their university to save lives. Is it a coincidence that the administration about-faced and canceled in-person classes the same day the editorial ran? Probably. Does it feel good to at least mention that fact? It does if you’re a student journalist or you revel in the power of the press.
To me, the students’ headline and editorial read as a perfectly nuanced attempt to serve the University of North Carolina, and a spectacular stunt that showed the world just how seriously these students take their responsibility to their community.
Fox News is fake news?
Yes, according to President Trump — who, apparently, is the one who decides such things. Trump criticized Fox News in a tweet over the weekend, and then took aim at the network during a speech on Monday.
After pointing out all the “fake news” organizations covering the speech, Trump said, “Unfortunately, Fox has become fake news, too. I don’t know what happens to these people. … At least the other side, you know where they’re coming from.”
- The rumors have been floating around for a while now, but ESPN made it official on Monday. Steve Levy, Brian Griese and Louis Riddick have been named the announcing team for “Monday Night Football.” They replace the highly criticized team of Joe Tessitore and Booger McFarland. The new team will make its debut in the second game of a double-header on Monday, Sept. 14, when the Tennessee Titans play the Denver Broncos. The first game that night — the Pittsburgh Steelers vs. the New York Giants — will be called by the No. 1 college football broadcasting team of Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit.
- Jemele Hill and Cari Champion’s new show, “Stick to Sports,” debuts Wednesday at 10 p.m. Eastern on Vice TV. And their first guest? LeBron James. The two hosts were interviewed Monday on “Good Morning America.”
- ESPN’s new morning radio show “Keyshawn, JWill & Zubin” with Keyshawn Johnson, Jay Williams and Zubin Mehenti made its debut on Monday. Guests included New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick and Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields. Here are two videos (here and here) of the opening show.
- InStyle’s Rainesford Stauffer interviews NBC News’ Hallie Jackson, who is back from maternity leave just as the presidential campaigns hit the stretch run.
- Writing for FiveThirtyEight, Marquette University associate professor of political science Julia Azari with “When Conventions Have Mattered.”
- NBC News’ Benjy Sarlin and Suzy Khimm with “Coronavirus is Spreading in Schools, But The Federal Government Isn’t Keeping Count.”
- Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple with “‘We Know Where You Live, Beware’: The 911 Call of a Household Put on Blast By Tucker Carlson.”
Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at email@example.com.
More resources for journalists
- Subscribe to Alma Matters – Poynter’s new newsletter for college journalism educators
- Coronavirus: Tracking the Infodemic Across Social Media — Aug. 20 at 11 a.m. Eastern, First Draft
- The Weirdest Election “Night” Ever: What journalists need to know about the 2020 elections and a working democracy (Online Group Seminar) — Sept. 9-10, Poynter
- Building a Scalable Personal Brand (Online Group Seminar) — Sept 25 – Nov. 6, Poynter
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