Neil Macdonald: Whales, minnows and real moments in Democrat convention's bathwater

There are lots of interesting things going on at the Democratic convention that are being eclipsed by mainstream news coverage, Neil Macdonald writes.
Women's right activist Lilly Ledbetter, namesake of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, addressed delegates during the first day of the Democratic National Convention. She made her case that the courts, and Republicans, have never shown tremendous interest in bringing discriminatory business practices to heel. (Jason Reed/Reuters)

This Democratic convention in Charlotte is a news event. I keep having to remind myself of that.

It doesn’t mean anything new is actually happening here in North Carolina. Quite the opposite, in fact. This whole thing is really just a pep rally, and I’m pretty sure I know who will emerge as the Democratic nominee.

Prof. Larry Sabato, the political sage from the University of Virginia, doesn’t think these affairs amount to a hill of beans. Basically, he says, they’re just partisan retrenching exercises in an evenly divided country where 95 per cent of voters have already made up their minds, even those who pretend they’re "independents."

But a news event doesn’t have to feature anything new. News is something that’s happening, and is attracting the media, and therefore must be reported.

What that means is that the people choreographing the show — and that’s what this is — are the main deciders of what reporters, including me, are going to report from here.

That’s just the way it is. Go read Noam Chomsky.

Michelle Obama, for example, was the news Tuesday night, even though all she basically said was that she really loves Barack and her kids, and that being a mom is important, and that Barack hasn’t changed.

She’s said all that before. It sounded sort of over-rehearsed and over-smooth to me. But Twitter says more than twice as many Americans were tweeting about her speech, by the time she finished, than were during Mitt Romney’s acceptance speech at the Republican convention last week.

Go figure.

Anyway, the news tends to eclipse everything else, including a few things I found a lot more interesting. Here are a few, in no particular order.

Fair Pay

Lilly Ledbetter. Best speech of Tuesday night, as far as I was concerned.

Lilly Ledbetter addresses the Democratic National Convention. (Jason Reed/Reuters)

Ledbetter is a surprisingly young-looking 74-year-old woman from Jacksonville, Alabama, with a determined, ferocious glare and a gravelly cornpone accent.

She strode onto the stage, punched a fist into the air, and told her story: Hired by Goodyear, where she served as a manager for years before discovering she was being paid a lot less than her male counterparts. She sued, and eventually lost in court (or "cowurt," as she pronounced it). But in 2009, President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which can only be considered a milestone for women.

Perhaps it was the fact that she was sandwiched between some crashing bores (Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee stunk up the joint a few minutes earlier), but Ledbetter had me. I couldn’t take my eyes off the jumbotron.

When she reminded the crowd that women make 77 cents for every dollar men make, then declared that even though she never saw a dime of the money she was shortchanged, "It’s about my daughter. It’s about my granddaughter. It’s about women and men…," you could feel the surge of emotion in the room.

Ledbetter, unschooled on how to use an applause line, plowed on, talking over the cheers, determined to make her deadly serious case that the courts, and Republicans, have never shown tremendous interest in bringing discriminatory business practices to heel.

She is not a pro. But sure she held that crowd.

The Lihns

Then there was the appearance on stage by the Lihn family, whose daughter Zoe was born with a congenital heart condition.

Emmy Lihn reaches up to comfort her sister Zoe in their father Caleb's arms while their mother Stacy (not shown) speaks about the effects of Obama health care reform on Zoe's care. (Jason Reed/Reuters)

Stacy Lihn was making the case that Obamacare, the president’s controversial health-care law, stopped her insurance company from imposing "lifetime caps" on her daughter’s costly treatments and surgeries, and how Zoe would suffer if Obamacare is repealed, as the Republicans have promised to do.

As Lihn spoke, Zoe began to cry on her father’s shoulder. Her older sister, just a toddler herself, took hold of the baby’s foot, soothing her.

It was a real moment, and it was touching and it was largely unreported.

Long, weird freakshow

Conventions are bewildering panoramas of advocacy, power and weirdness.

A reporter we met was studying all the corporate jets accumulating out at the airport. Obama himself arrives today, and there is no greater magnet for money and power than a president.

The long, weird freakshow on the sidewalk outside the convention seems to grow every day. Screaming people hoist huge colour pictures of aborted fetuses, alongside vendors hawking preserved newspaper accounts of Obama’s 2009 inauguration, while at least three or four guys with bullhorns yell nonstop about embracing Jesus or burning in hell.

Another guy hands out fake million-dollar bills.  The small print says they have something to do with Jesus and redemption, too. This is, after all, the Southland.

Inside, delegates looking to be interviewed strut around like festooned roosters, knowing outlandish outfits are camera magnets. They hardly need an invitation to begin declaring their love for just about any prominent Democrat.

On the upper levels, professional politicians await the next interview. The more important the pol, the bigger the entourage. These pros can turn on a high-wattage smile in a moment, and return to a cynical sneer just as quickly, usually when the camera light blinks off. It’s as though they have two personalities. It’s sort of ugly, actually.

And my media colleagues, all 15,000 of them (there are about 5,000 delegates) seem bored, oblivious, and largely self-absorbed. For a lot of them, this convention is not just about reporting "the news," it’s about putting themselves on full display.

The sheer volume of received wisdom being exchanged and repeated is staggering. The building teems with people who have never met Barack Obama, but seem willing to offer psychoanalysis.

(Disclosure: I took part in a live NPR roundtable discussion of how foreign reporters report on America. It was a great opportunity for self-promotion. I thought I was terribly clever and wry.)

Anyway, this is far from my first convention. I know the drill by now. It’s an exercise in power, both political and media. It’s a huge, warm, Olympic-sized pool of bathwater, and you’re either a whale or you’re a minnow. There is no in-between.

And no matter how many times I do it, it still feels mildly anti-journalistic. Except for Lilly Ledbetter and that little girl.