Rarely in the annals of journalism can so many have laboured so mightily in pursuit of so little. Our modern age is littered with media spectaculars, but few have seen as much ado about nothing as last week's Democratic convention.
About 4,500 delegates assembled in Boston to have a good time, listen to four evenings of minutely scripted speeches, all saying the same thing - and, oh yes, to take the astonishing step of confirming John Kerry as the Democratic candidate for the White House. To chronicle these momentous events, no less than 15,000 journalists were on hand.
Kerry's acceptance speech on Thursday was, of course, a real story. Otherwise proceedings were dominated by the "shove it" uttered by the exotic Teresa Heinz Kerry to a tiresome reporter last Sunday, and heard around the world. The next evening saw Bill Clinton's speech - a reminder of what a stunning political performer the old rascal remains.
For the rest, it was pretty thin gruel. John Edwards gave his standard jolly stump speech. Every now and then a celeb, lost amid a forest of microphones, would pass through the press centre - Michael Moore, Ben Affleck et al, or luminaries past like Jimmy Carter or George McGovern. When a real star like Hillary Clinton came near, that half-manic grin imprinted on her face with a hundred reporters jostling in her slipstream, a wise man ran for the exits to avoid being trampled to death.
As usual on such occasions, the network and cable anchors strode around like demi-gods - even though ABC, NBC and CBS had cut their live coverage from 35 hours in convention heyday three decades ago to just three hours in all last week. The 24-hour cable channels, the favoured refuge of political junkies, has taken up some of the slack. But, as the spectacle of journalists reduced to interviewing each other testified, conventions ain't what they used to be.
Some did manage to keep a sense of proportion. "We'll probably just do a 'Talk of the Town' slot on it," said David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker. "There's not much to add when the [New York] Times has 100 people here." Well, maybe not 100, but something close to it judging from the Times office in the temporary press pavilionoutside the Fleet Center sports arena, normally home to Boston's ice hockey Bruins and basketball Celtics.
The pavilion was a weird place, made of what looked like white plastic, a cross between a site office at a giant construction project and a refreshment tent at a garden fête. Inside was a maze of curtained rooms, each an electronic ant-heap, with reporters and editors staring into flickering screens, as if they were mission control operatives in Houston. If they seemed oddly lifeless, the press galleries above the podium were even more so, empty most of the time. Where were the 15,000?
For a bit of action, you had to go to Talk Radio Row, packed into a corridor leading to a perpetually overcrowded men's lavatory. There, chattering and confabulating, never drawing breath, were the motor-mouths of the ABC radio network - conservatives most of them. Some were at tightly packed tables, others jammed into what in normal times are ticket booths for Boston's North Station which adjoins the arena.
But one has to ask, does the convention matter? Like its Republican counterpart, this week's exercise has been a colossal infomercial. News was in desperately short supply, what with intra-party dissent squelched and events orchestrated in a fashion that would have made the old Soviet Politburo proud. The last potential for suspense vanished with the announcement, three weeks ago, of John Edwards as vice-presidential running mate.
Even so, the media coverage, however exaggerated, does matter. Forget the foreign press presence, running into the hundreds. The world cares desperately about this election, but the world doesn't vote in US elections. The judgement of the American media, wandering about the Fleet Center in their thousands, is something else entirely.
Fewer Americans these days may read about politics or watch it on television. But in this intensely polarised election year, more of them will vote. Their judgement will be largely formed by the headlines in the papers, by the opinions of the chatterers in Talk Show Row. In that sense, the reviews of last week's theatrics will matter hugely. For what it is worth, the initial consensus was that John Kerry Productions has a smash on his hands.
FILING BY NUMBERS
US Democratic Convention 2004 15,000 accredited journalists; Athens Olympics 2004 20,000; Euro 2004 8,000; D-Day 60th Anniversary 2004 3,500; Super Bowl 2004 3,200; Cannes Film Festival 2004 4,000; Queen's Golden Jubilee 2003 3,000; Eurovision Song Contest 2004 650