What sounded like a gunshot rang out Wednesday by Public Square in Cleveland outside the Republican National Convention.
Dozens of reporters ran toward the noise, which turned out to be a car backfiring. I reluctantly followed them against my better nature.
I usually try to avoid media packs. When they zig, you zag.
Want me to stand with the rest of reporters at the crime scene and wait for a quote, officer? No thanks. I’ll try and knock on some doors and talk to someone who may have witnessed the crime rather than wait to be spoon-fed secondhand information.
But Wednesday was tough. It was a classic case of media overkill — embarrassing when reporters outnumber demonstrators and conflict appears to be staged to draw attention.
Convention organizers estimated 15,000 journalists descended on the city.
“When the ratio of reporters to delegates is six to one, protestors usually come out because media needs something to cover and it can’t all be the convention,” said John Olsen, a voting rights activist who has been attending conventions since 1992.
It’s one thing to cover the fire but quite another to think someone set it to get you to cover it. All around the nation, newspaper newsrooms have seen massive cuts. We have the nearly impossible task of trying to cover the same amount of ground with half as many reporters than 10 or 20 years ago.
You cannot do more with less. You do less with less.
I’ve worked at mostly small newspapers and radio stations for my 25-year career and we try to serve the community as best we can. It’s a lot of long hours for low pay and often unglamorous, but important: Following how your money is spent. Trying in some small way to be a watchdog and to speak for the dead after crashes and homicides. Showing victims’ humanity rather than writing about them like statistics.
There is something noble in that. But there is nothing noble in feeling like you’re helping manufacture a story rather than covering it.
I admit to being a little holier than thou. I was interviewing people and taking pictures like all the other reporters. But I was there for a couple of hours to try to find people from the communities we cover in Amherst, Oberlin, and Wellington and then call it a day.
However, the major media outlets with far bigger budgets and staffs could surely send fewer reporters to the convention. A little less horse race, “inside baseball,” breathless analysis and a little more investigative journalism around the country or around the world.
Our infrastructure is crumbling. Our schools are almost as segregated as before Brown v. Board of Education. Global warming is cooking the planet. NATO expansion has triggered another nuclear arms race and dangerous military cat-and-mouse activity with Russia.
Which is not to say the convention should be ignored.
There were intelligent, passionate demonstrators at Public Square who had something to say. I salute them for exercising their First Amendment right rather than being apathetic or being tethered to their phones or computers.
There were some good stories to be told but more context and perspective needed. Demonstrators getting arrested after a flag burning incident is not the same as the Chicago police riots at the 1968 Democratic convention.
Given Donald Trump’s incendiary style and the high-profile killings of and by police in recent months, I’m sure a lot of editors were expecting all hell to break out at the convention and it influenced their coverage. There is no doubt that media thrives on conflict and controversy. We don’t report on the bank not getting robbed or the plane not crashing.
We shouldn’t shy away from real conflict. Footage of black people being beaten and children being jailed during the fight to end segregation shamed the nation into change and scenes of the viciousness of the Vietnam War helped fuel the antiwar movement.
More recently, video of police in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014 clad in body armor pointing semi-automatic rifles at unarmed black protestors spotlighted how the drug war and federal anti-terrorism policies have led to the militarization of police, including those in small towns like Ferguson. That is a matter of life and death that warrants saturation coverage.
Convention speeches and routine protests? Not so much.
I understand how some demonstrators may feel like they’re flipping the script. For years, media has exploited unrest and tragedy for ratings or click bait without reporting on the root causes that led to it like economic inequality, racism, and poverty.
We can do better.
Evan Goodenow can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @GoodenowNews on Twitter.
Photo by David Ashenhurst Oberlin News-Tribune reporter Evan Goodenow works outside the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.