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Columbia Journalism Review - Sept/Oct, 2000


Looking In The Shadows
By Russ Baker

In one of the more dramatic moments at the Shadow Convention in Philadelphia, dubbed a "Citizens' Intervention in American Politics," a busload of midwestern children whose mothers are among the 400,000 Americans incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses took center stage. They moved the audience with rough poems and out-of-tune songs about growing up without mom, and were followed by speakers who argued that destroyed families come as much from the War on Drugs as from drug abuse. It worked as theater, certainly as much as anything at the even more scripted convention taking place on the stage of First Union Center a few miles away.

Like a lot of journalists I was skeptical about the Shadow Convention, a weeklong series of presentations held at the University of Pennsylvania during the Republican lovefest for George W. Bush, and again in Los Angeles as the Democrats met. The events' most visible organizer was Arianna Huffington, who once masterminded an unsuccessful U.S. Senate bid for her hapless ex-husband Michael and who has made a controversial political trek from right to left. The Shadow Convention seemed likely to attract a fringe audience of doom-mongers and naysayers, a kind of indoors street demonstration.

Was I wrong! Most everyone who made it to the Shadow Convention in Philadelphia agreed that this event -- assembled and coordinated by such organizations as Common Cause, Public Campaign, Global Exchange, the religious coalition Call to Renewal, the Lindesmith Center Drug Policy Foundation, and United for a Fair Economy -- aired more ideas in an hour for fixing what ails America than the Republicans did in four days.

Both Shadow Conventions were intended as a timely commentary on what organizers see as the absence of substantive discussion at the two major conventions, and the diminution of meaningful differences between the two major parties. Speakers in Philadelphia included Jack Kemp; Jesse Jackson; John Anderson, the former independent presidential candidate; the journalist William Greider and the author Jonathan Kozol; Chris Shays, the GOP Representative and campaign-finance reform advocate; and two Clinton appointees who resigned in frustration at the administration's priorities, Labor Secretary Robert Reich and Health & Human Services Assistant Secretary Peter Edelman; not to mention groups representing seniors, people of color, small-business people, and environmentalists, among others. Many of these luminaries had their axes to grind, but the Shadow Conventions featured some circumspect and insightful social and cultural analysts. They talked about the largest wealth gap in history, the largest number of Americans in jail for nonviolent crimes, and the little-discussed fact that 12 million American children are malnourished. We heard campaign finance experts detailing successful state and local public financing initiatives designed to remove the corrupting influence of big money on the democratic process. We heard Gary Johnson, Republican Governor of New Mexico, and Tom Campbell, GOP California Senate nominee, both decry the War on Drugs as failed, costly, and painful (both see treatment as the right course).
The Annenberg School for Communication hosted the event in Philadelphia, and its dean, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, moderated a panel of smart opinion journalists that included Matthew Cooper of Time, Jonathan Alter of Newsweek, the ex-New Yorker writer Renata Adler, and Jacob Weisberg and Mickey Kaus of Slate. All expressed their disgust with the artificiality and vacuousness of the Republican convention a few miles away (although most of them were only at the Shadow Convention long enough to put in their quick appearance before returning to the GOP affair). "People should vote with their feet," said Weisberg. "I hope this is the last convention covered this way." Cooper said the coverage of the convention reflected the way that the fast track in the newsroom is often reserved for those on political, not issue, beats: "We're stuck in the unsatisfying limbo of skepticism. Solutions journalism is not seen as worthy." Alter added, "The story we don't do, the dog that doesn't bite, is often the real answer."

Well, exactly. But here was a chance to do a little something about it. Most major news organizations, including newspapers with more than fifty people on hand in Philadelphia scurrying around looking for news, did little with the Shadow Conventions. The events did get some coverage, but mostly in brief sidebars or mentions, and they were often portrayed as an amusing sideshow, a chance to focus on Huffington's personality and obtain a soundbite from Jackson or John McCain, who spoke on campaign finance reform. When several Shadow participants crashed a Trent Lott fundraising breakfast with a buxom blond symbol of excess strewing dollars in the air, television camera crews jostled to record the moment. But the daylong, in-depth investigation of campaign finance problems and proposed solutions was not seen as newsworthy.

In Philadelphia, the hometown paper, the Inquirer, was a refreshing exception, with stories like A NO-FRILLS LOOK AT MONEY AND POLITICS and SHADOW CONVENTIONERS UNLEASH UNFRIENDLY FIRE ON 'DRUG WAR.' Another was The Buffalo News. Its Washington bureau chief, Douglas Turner, explained to me how, on the heels of long debate over whether to cover the conventions at all, the paper decided to assign one of its three reporters in Philadelphia to full-time coverage of the street demonstrations and the Shadow Convention. Turner was palpably angry over the inability of journalists to deal with the corrosive effects of money in politics. "This thing has gotten away from all of us," he said. "Only the L.A. Times and The New York Times have the resources to deal with the gravity of this stuff. Reporters are angry and disgusted, but the public doesn't know."

The Shadow Conventions were made for the media, just like the big conventions. Nobody would expect news organizations to devote massive resources to them. But surely events of this seriousness, timed for a moment when the country is supposed to be discussing and examining the challenges facing it, are worthy of some exposure. Putting down the shallowness of a pre-scripted political show takes no special skill or commitment. Yet we're slow to recognize the alternatives, even when they're right across town.

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