Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Link Between Food and Journalism

A couple of weeks ago, The Write Side of My Brain linked to an amusing article in the Denver Post about requirements being imposed on caterers by the organizers of this year's Democratic National Convention.

For the Denver Post, the convention is a local story, so the article, headlined "Caterers find eco-standards tough to chew," has a local flavor. The challenge for the caterers is that the convention host committee has banned certain foods and combinations of foods:

Fried shrimp on a bed of jasmine rice and a side of mango salad, all served on a styrofoam plate. Bottled water to wash it all down.

These trendy catering treats are unlikely to appear on the menu at parties sponsored by the Denver 2008 Host Committee during the Democratic National Convention this summer.

Fried foods are forbidden at the committee's 22 or so events, as is liquid served in individual plastic containers. Plates must be reusable, like china, recyclable or compostable. The food should be local, organic or both.

And caterers must provide foods in "at least three of the following five colors: red, green, yellow, blue/purple, and white," garnishes not included, according to a Request for Proposals, or RFP, distributed last week.

The shrimp-and-mango ensemble? All it's got is white, brown and orange, so it may not have the nutritional balance that generally comes from a multihued menu.

"Blue could be a challenge," joked Ed Janos, owner of Cook's Fresh Market in Denver. "All I can think of are blueberries."
The Democrats are not alone in laying down the law on food at their convention. The Republicans, too, are working out rules, prodded, in part, by the latest iterations of congressional ethics standards.

As Chris Cillizza and Ben Pershing reported in the Washington Post over Memorial Day weekend,
...the Democratic convention in Denver and the Republican one in Minneapolis-St. Paul won't be like the old days for members of Congress, who must now live under a tightened regimen of ethics rules. Fortunately, while the House and Senate ethics committees aren't always vigilant about investigating real corruption, they have been cranking out memos (including a new one last week) on what lawmakers can and can't eat, drink and do during the conventions.
Among the do's and don't's suggested in the memo:

DO: Snag pigs in a blanket and bacon-wrapped-somethings from a tray at a party.

DON'T: Sit down to eat a meal on a plate with a fork and knife.

Hill members and their staffs are already familiar with these sometimes confusing culinary rules. As the House ethics memo points out, you may attend "receptions at which the food served is limited to hors d'oeuvres, beverages and similar food of a nominal value." Sit-down dinners are verboten. Yes, it can be hard sometimes to stand with a drink in one hand and a plate of food in the other, and consume it all without spilling on yourself, especially if a dipping sauce is involved. But you just can't sit down and eat your meal with silverware. That would corrupt the democratic process.

Here's another:

DO: Accept $49 worth of fried Twinkies at a Minnesota fair.

DON'T: Accept $51 worth (or die of a heart attack).

Lawmakers can accept any gifts worth less than $50 as long as the donor isn't a lobbyist or someone who works for a firm that employs lobbyists. Those who eat fried Twinkies, fried cheese curds and other Midwestern delicacies may not accept free emergency room care to restart their hearts, since most hospital systems employ lobbyists.
Now here comes the history lesson. Back in 1996, I traveled to Chicago to cover the Democratic National Convention, which was renominating Bill Clinton and Al Gore, who would go on to face the Republican ticket of Bob Dole and Jack Kemp. As I have noted already, presidential nominating conventions don't really do much, so there was not much "news" to report. I ended up with four feature stories. One of them was about the media at the convention, with a special focus on food. This was the second in the series, and it appeared (with photographs) in The Metro Herald on September 27, 1996:
Feeding Frenzy: The News Media at the Democratic Convention
Richard E. Sincere, Jr.
Exclusive to the Metro Herald

When University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato used the phrase "feeding frenzy" as the title of his book about the news media and contemporary American politics, he probably had little idea how literally his image might be played out. If the behavior of reporters and their colleagues at the Democratic National Convention is any indication, the media "feeding frenzy" is far more real than any professor's imaginings.

Each evening during the course of the convention's four days, the Illinois Restaurant Association sponsored and distributed free food and drinks for the media representatives. From 6:00 to 9:00, Monday through Thursday, reporters, TV crews, radio sound engineers, pundits, and gophers from legitimate news organizations were able to graze among more than a dozen booths from some of Chicago's finest -- and not-so-fine -- restaurants. Chicago's ethnic groups were much in evidence: Mexican food, Polish food, Greek, Thai, German. The Billy Goat Cafe (made famous by Saturday Night Live in the 1970s with the refrain, "Cheeseburger! Cheeseburger! Cheeseburger! No Coke, Pepsi!") was there -- serving, naturally, cheeseburgers.

Reporters started to line up for the food about 5:15, wanting to be first to sample the goods before they were all snatched up and devoured. Inside the United Center, delegates and observers had to pay $5.50 and more for hot dogs and hamburgers. A small Coke (inside) was $2.50 for less than 12 ounces. At the media pavilion, however, you could get all the Snapple you could drink -- as well as Coke, Pepsi, beer, wine -- all for free. What we had was a miniature version of the annual "Taste of Chicago" festival held in Grant Park.

By the third night of the convention, delegates and others caught on to the rumors of free food in the media pavilion. Wednesday night was a horror-show of reporters elbowing delegates shoving Democratic Party officials for a cheap hamburger or for another slice of what is, without a doubt, the world's best cheesecake (from Eli's, 6510 W. Dakin Street in Chicago, which can now say that giving free food to reporters pays off in free publicity down the road -- call 800-ELI-CAKE for mail orders). So on Thursday night, the Restaurant Association and cosponsor Ameritech set up a security phalanx around the food court to assure that no one but credentialed media representatives could get through. No amount of begging, pleading, or flirting would do for the uncredentialed delegate or "special guest" -- only authentic journalists were allowed to eat. Even so, because the final night of the convention attracted more people than any other night (because of President Clinton's acceptance speech), the chaos in the media pavilion's food court resembled nothing if not one of those scenes of refugees from the Russian Revolution in Dr. Zhivago.

The Democratic Convention attracted 15,000 members of the news media to Chicago. This was 5,000 more than went to San Diego for the Republican Convention, which meant that 50 percent more reporters were chasing 150 percent fewer stories. As I noted in these pages last month, the major parties' political conventions have, over the past 25 years or so, lost their drama -- and with it the ability of a reporter to shape a story of interest to viewers or readers. "Drama" does not mean just entertainment value. It signifies three other alliterative concepts: debate, deliberation, and decision-making. At neither the Republican nor the Democratic convention were any of these three important elements of democracy in evidence.

Yet despite the absence of any real "hard" news stories -- an utter lack of debate, deliberation, or decision-making -- the media hordes arrived primed and ready in Chicago. For good reason, they sought stories outside the convention itself, such as in the official protest area just outside the United Center grounds (see the September 20 Metro Herald for more details). Perhaps most disconcerting, the media engaged in incestuous news-gathering -- interviewing and analyzing each other.

It was common to see, for instance, a reporter from a local ABC affiliate interviewing Jeff Greenfield of ABC News on the convention floor. The Wall Street Journal's Al Hunt (also seen on CNN's Capital Gang) was often the target of an inquisitive reporter. All in all, reporters -- particularly broadcast-media reporters -- were as likely to interview each other as to interview elected officials or Democratic Party activists.

This incest extended to the publications available on the United Center grounds and in the dozens of convention hotels downtown. The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times made slimmed-down daily editions freely available. The morning Chicago Tribune offered a special evening edition, distributed around the media pavilions. National Journal passed out a useful and informative "Daily Convention Edition," and even the avowedly conservative Weekly Standard created a special daily edition for the convention. In addition, Roll Call and The Hill (two Washington newspapers covering Congress) shipped thousands of copies to Chicago for the convention. Dozens of other publications, ranging from Reason to the Chicago Reader, dropped off stacks of samples for the thousands of reporters, who were happy to scavenge whatever they could find.

Clearly, the media mavens wanted their colleagues to read their products -- and perhaps subscribe later. In the meantime, however, having the instant analysis of rivals available made the jobs of the reporters easier -- they did not have to make up their own jokes about Hillary Rodham Clinton, for instance, when they could just steal this line from the front page of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: "It takes a First Lady . . . "

Despite the lack of hard news to be found, the Democratic Convention was considered a plum assignment for many reporters, especially young ones who had never experienced an event like this. I met three of them who felt attending this convention was a real feather in their caps, something that increased their credibility with readers back home and gave them some substance by which to measure future political events. I was astounded at the number of reporters who were under the age of 25. (There were, indeed, older hacks in evidence, like David Broder of the Washington Post and Robert Novak of the Chicago Sun-Times. But these are commentators as much as reporters. The wet-behind-the-ears crowd was something else.)

Among the younger reporters I chanced upon were Jason Ellison, 18, of the Wisconsin Light, a weekly in Milwaukee; Sean Donahue, 18, of the Middlesex News in Framingham, Massachusetts; and Steve Klafehn, 21, of radio station WBSU-FM in Brockport, New York. I had earlier met Donahue in New Hampshire, when he was covering the Forbes campaign (see the Metro Herald, March 8 and 15, 1996); he also covered the GOP convention in San Diego.

Ellison was accompanying his publisher while Klafehn was on his own -- an enterprising reporter, he convinced his station to send him to the convention and also persuaded a local travel agency to provide him with transportation in return for sponsorship of his on-the-scene, live reports about the New York delegation.

In addition, the Children's Express team was on hand, newsgathering as they have done at every convention since 1972. Children's Express is made up of reporters as young as eight years old. Most are in the 10-14 age group. They learn their trade under the guidance of mentors. Over the years, they have been remarkably successful. In 1976, for instance, a Children's Express reporter scooped the world with the story of Jimmy Carter's choice of Walter Mondale as a running mate.

No doubt these younger reporters gained much from covering the convention. They certainly had an opportunity to learn that, in the modern age, the most important activity for convention delegates is dancing to the "Macarena" to relieve boredom. With a combination of skills and luck, however, they probably also learned how best to sniff out stories that may not be apparent on the surface -- and, with that, they may be able to rise to the levels of Al Hunt or Jeff Greenfield in the next 30 years.

But, if not, at least they got free tacos and cheesecake out of it.

I will be posting the other three of my 1996 Democratic Convention in the weeks to come, depending on whether I can find an appropriate news hook for each of them. Watch for those "history lessons" here.

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