'No View, Little News' ' p.5

By: M.L. STEIN THIS IS AN exhibit hall, you see," explained Fred Sainz. "It's not a dome and, by definition, must be smaller than previous convention venues."
Sainz, a plump, genial man, and assistant convention manager for the Republican National Committee (RNC) at its recent convention in San Diego, was responding to gripes from the media, mostly print reporters, about bad seating arrangements at the San Diego Convention Center. For the press, the accommodations compared poorly to those at the Houston Astrodome or New Orleans Superdome, sites of the previous two GOP conventions.
The complaints were justified. Newspaper reporters were assigned to a gallery overlooking the convention floor, but well to the side of the speaker's podium, and with podium views blocked by what Sainz called "tree columns" ? huge tubular structures resembling a technologically advanced boiler room.
The press gallery lacked TV screens for projecting podium action, although some writers brought their own sets. Small audio feeds were placed at each desk.
The humongous television boxes flanking the podium were fine for delegates on the floor, but useless to reporters.
Nevertheless, the gallery could be considered first-class seating ? at least when compared to a second press section across the floor, which had even more obstructions.
Among the frustrated journalists was Frank Lo Monte, Atlanta bureau chief for Morris Communications, whose two reporters were separated by the division.
"They really should be working side by side," he said. "I can't understand why they were split up, since they're from the same organization."
But the really cheap seats were reserved for the periodical press. Their chairs, mingled in with those of spectators, ranged a football field and a half from the podium and offered a side view that defied even binoculars.
In his Convention Journal feature in the Washington Post, reporter David Von Drehle commented: "The worst seats of all are reserved for the print media, which is seated in pens beside the dais, but with no view of the speaker . . . . A seat 130 yards from the podium, so far you have to squint to make out the speaker, can be a pretty good seat. At least you can see the speaker."
TV broadcasters had no trouble seeing anyone. The three major networks and CNN operated from glass sky boxes overlooking the floor and facing the podium. Thirty-three sky boxes in all spread around the hall, most of them for GOP bigwigs.
"This obviously is a made-for-TV production," said Houston Chronicle reporter Chris Woodyard, echoing the predominant press view.
But even TV executives complained their boxes were not elevated enough ? the ceiling is only 27 feet high ? and compared their accommodations unfavorably with those at past conventions.
All this grousing did not go down too well at the San Diego Union-Tribune, where hometown pride kicked in.
In an editorial, the paper ? which, with its parent company, Copley Newspapers, hosted a lavish party for the media Aug. 10, two days before the convention started ? termed the media's fault-finding "stale" and "akin to the guests at a wedding squawking about the size of the church."
Columnist Neil Morgan said the elevated front-row seats in the press gallery "as at conventions in the past, afford the best view of the delegates." Still, Morgan lamented the lack of TV monitors around the hall.
The press shouldn't be surprised by its second-class status in San Diego, according to George Condon, Washington bureau chief for Copley News Service and a veteran of past conventions.
"Neither party puts the media high on the list when it comes to handing out seating," he observed. "They are more interested in accommodating their big contributors and making their delegations happy. They get priority."
Condon noted, however, that, as a representative of the host-city newspaper, he was accorded a front-row seat in the newspaper gallery, next to the New York Times.
"But I still could not see the podium," he said.
Conditions were much better for the 15,000 media people in the Marriott Hotel and Marina adjacent to the convention center.
Organizations that could afford it ? the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Knight-Ridder, Newhouse Newspapers, and so on ? occupied spacious newsrooms on the ground floor.
Those that couldn't were welcomed at AT&T's Press Filing Center, which offered work spaces, some 70 phones with computer plug-ins, fax and photocopying machines, printers, TV screens, e-mail facilities and Internet access to a convention Web site. The phone company also offered free coffee, pastries, soft drinks and popcorn.
Free food in greater quantity was available a few doors away at Bell South's media hospitality room, where a horde of journalists ingested hot dogs, pizza, fruit, soda pop, beer and pretzels.
In addition, the RNC provided hotel galleries for the press.
And it would be hard to fault the RNC's Media Center, a smooth-running operation chock-full of daily handouts, an Official Press Guide, bios of GOP stars, a booklet on the Republican platform and assorted other information.
For a quick look at convention news, National Journal magazine distributed gratis copies of a special National Journal Convention Daily in racks around the hotel, along with complimentary copies of the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Washington Post, Union-Tribune, Houston Chronicle and other newspapers.
All this largess notwithstanding, Newhouse News Service humor columnist James Lileks asked his readers to "pity the media. You just don't know what hell a convention can be. The free air fare to a sunny summer city, the rivers of free wine flowing between steep banks of free food, the constant need to distribute income by over tipping with your employer's money, the parties, the friends, the magic badge around your neck that makes security guards part like beaten eunuchs ? it's hell, pure hell, and no one knows how they suffer."
One of the items that failed to make the list of media freebies was parking. If you wanted your car within a reasonable distance, a seven-day parking pass cost $95, $75 for three days, including shuttle service from the lot.
Press hotels were assigned by the RNC, but some were so far from the convention center that press people needed to ride a bus or train to get to work. One of the great bargains of the event was the San Diego Trolley, whose top price is $1.75, even from the farthest reaches of the city.
Despite grumbling about work space and burdensome security measures inside the hall, journalists focused on the paucity of real news out of the tightly orchestrated proceedings.
"It's a scripted TV show," contended Jim O'Shea, deputy managing editor of the Chicago Tribune, the Tribune Co. flagship. "The question is, how do you cover it? These conventions are losing relevance and significance to the point that they're boring the American public."
O'Shea, who said Tribune Co. newspapers fielded about 25 staffers altogether in San Diego, predicted the group will reassess its staffing needs for future conventions ? beginning with the upcoming Democratic conclave in Chicago.
"I don't think our readers are getting much out of them," he continued. "They are just big image campaigns. Even for TV, the [Chicago] Blackhawks or Bulls are better entertainment."
"This is not an exciting convention, but I haven't found any of them exciting since 1968," commented Robert Hodierne, national news editor for New- house Newspapers and head of the chain's team in San Diego. "This one is like watching Kabuki theater, where the actors wear smiling or frowning masks."
Reporters seized on the surprise appearance of Democratic "spies" ? White House aide George Stephanopolous, strategist James Carville and Ann Lewis, deputy director of the Clinton/Gore campaign ? as blessed relief from the droning speeches in the hall.
"The GOP is trying to be helpful to us, but they're still going to follow their script," said Lisa Mullins, senior producer for WGBH Radio, Boston.
Humorist Dave Barry quipped in his column: "Sometimes I walk into the news bureau here and I look around at all the reporters, typing away at their lap top computers, hour after hour, day after day, and want to scream: WHAT ARE YOU WRITING ABOUT?
"I mean, if I had to write a news story about this event, it would be perhaps two sentences long: SAN DIEGO ? Bob Dole and Jack Kemp are still the Republican ticket. The weather is beautiful."
?(Republican National Convention chairman Haley Barbour opens the 1996 Republican National Convention in San Diego Aug. 12. There were no surprises as some 2,000 delegates nominated former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole to run against President Bill Clinton.) [Photo & Caption]


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