Mea Culpa: DNC platform story was a big deal

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OK, so I’ll begin by thanking everyone for being kind to me. I think it’s fair to say that I royally messed up yesterday’s post.

So I pooh-poohed the idea that the editing of “God” and “Jerusalem” out of the Democratic National Convention platform was a big story. I wasn’t denying that the story of how religion and religious adherents are treated in the party was big — in fact, I stressed that I’d like to see more coverage of that. But I was wrong. It turned out that awkward efforts to tweak the platform — restoring “God” and “Jerusalem” — became one of the biggest news stories of the day.

Partly it became a big story because the story changed. On Tuesday, when folks were asked about the absence of the words, they said it was intentional and no big deal, and so on and so forth. But yesterday, the party announced that it was going to seek to change the wording and said that the removal of the words had been a mistake or oversight or was “unfortunate.” And that’s only where it begins to get interesting. When the leadership tried to get the delegates to approve the change — for which a 2/3 majority was needed — they didn’t get the votes. But they asserted that they had and delegates in the hall reacted unfavorably to the assertion. They booed loudly (you can watch the thing go down here). (A similar thing happened at the Republican convention, for what it’s worth.)

There’s a lot to unpack here. But my biggest complaint about the coverage is that we don’t really know why the delegates were booing. Certainly a lot of reporters had fun with the idea that the Democrats were booing God (e.g. Drudge had the headline “THEY BOOED PUTTING GOD BACK!”). But without talking to any of the people who were booing, it’s hard to know precisely what they were booing. My own assumption is that they were booing the incorrect ruling of the chairman. And if they were booing the contents of the amendment, I’d suspect they were booing the Jerusalem provision more than the God provision, but I’m just pulling that out of thin air. I’m not in Charlotte and I don’t know. But is it so much to find out why various delegates were booing? Like, really find out?

Again, I was wrong in my post yesterday. Obviously the mention of God and/or Jerusalem are huge issues for Democratic delegates. We need some quality background on why that is. Horse-race stuff is fun, but there were perhaps too many stories about DNC spokeswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s capacity to lie about the situation rather than what the situation itself signifies (see above for an example of that). Wouldn’t it be nice to find out more about what Democratic delegates believe? There couldn’t be a more interesting story there — that there is far less controversy in the party over abortion provides interesting contrast, too.

Anyway, a few notes on media coverage. I thought it interesting that the New York Times played down the “God” issue and highlighted the “Jerusalem” one. CNN tweeted out about secular opposition to the change. The Associated Press has a source saying that Obama “intervened directly” to get the platform changed and Politico notes that he had seen the language prior to the convention but only moved to change it yesterday.

The Associated Press was the most helpful report of all. It explained the context of the Jerusalem situation, why it’s a contentious topic, about the discord on the floor and Schultz’s denial of the discord on the floor. But it did so with actual interviews and sources that helped explain the whole situation:

Needled by Mitt Romney and other Republicans, Democrats hurriedly rewrote their convention platform Wednesday to add a mention of God and declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel after President Barack Obama intervened to order the changes.

The embarrassing reversal was compounded by chaos and uncertainty on the convention floor. Three times Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the convention chairman, called for a voice vote on the changes and each time the yes and no votes seemed to balance each other out. On the third attempt, Villaraigosa ruled the amendments were approved — triggering boos from many in the audience.

The episode exposed tensions on Israel within the party, put Democrats on the defensive and created a public relations spectacle as Obama arrived in the convention city to claim his party’s nomination for a second term.

“There was no discussion. We didn’t even see it coming. We were blindsided by it,” said Noor Ul-Hasan, a Muslim delegate from Salt Lake City, who questioned whether the convention had enough of a quorum to even amend the platform.

“The majority spoke last night,” said Angela Urrea, a delegate from Roy, Utah. “We shouldn’t be declaring Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.”

ABC News put some focus on the “God” mention, including some curious graphs suggesting a majority of Americans don’t want politicians to rely on their religious views when making policy decisions but do like bland civil religion mentions of “God” at times.

I still want to say that the early reports were phrased hyperbolically, but I have to admit that I just called this one wrong. It was a big story and one with lots of drama. I hope, though, that I’m allowed to call for a balanced approach to covering this even after the drama of Wednesday night. And maybe some carefully crafted explanation of how civil religion works in this country, with critical voices from multiple perspectives.

  • Bob Smietana

    Were they booing God – or booing that the chairman messed up the process of voting?

    • mollie

      As I wrote above:
      “My own assumption is that they were booing the incorrect ruling of the chairman. And if they were booing the contents of the amendment, I’d suspect they were booing the Jerusalem provision more than the God provision, but I’m just pulling that out of thin air. I’m not in Charlotte and I don’t know. But is it so much to find out why various delegates were booing? Like, really find out?”
      Instead everyone’s interviewing Debbie Wasserman Schultz about how there was no booing. I get that she provides easier access, but it shouldn’t be too hard to talk to some real delegates who have some first-hand reax.

      • INTJ

        “My own assumption is that they were booing the incorrect ruling of the chairman”
        The problem with that explanation is that, if true, they were booing the fact that the chairman failed to correctly determine that the delegates voted against adding the references to God and Jerusalem back into the platform, which still means the delegates didn’t want those references there, so you’re back to square one. Agreed that better reporting would be helpful, and that it is more likely Jerusalem was the more objectionable piece, but any way you slice this story, while it is not exactly Watergate, Democrats nonetheless come off looking pretty antipathetic to both ideas, especially because they didn’t see it coming.

  • George Conger

    Mollie, I disagree with your contention that you messed up the story — rather you were ahead of the curve. Who would have thought the DNC platform committee would have made such a blunder — not the omission of God and Jerusalem but its readmission. The DNC tends to think it can take the Jewish vote for granted — and not to fear the president has “Israel’s back”. But as to messing up the story — I don’t see how that happened.

  • tmatt

    In other words, Bob, MZ is calling for more actual journalism on the story. Not the easy, initial headlines.

  • Passing By

    I would have said they were boo-ing the falsified (not “messed up”) ruling of the chair. But then, I would have been boo-ing, too, but that’s just me. The point is, we don’t know because they didn’t interview the people who were boo-ing.

    The ABC News link was interesting, but I would like more information on that poll. What was the question leading t the finding that religion should not be a source for expressing political values? Given the high percent of belief in this country, it’s hard to think there wasn’t a sampling error.

    Mollie, I didn’t think your other post was messed up at all. The story about politicians should be their policies, not their god-talk.

  • Bob Smietana

    I think Mollie is right – more reporting is needed.
    This story – and the Jummah prayers story – have really been framed as – “See how un Christian the Democrats are” stories – which makes it harder to do actual reporting on what happened.

  • Jerry

    Mollie, I’m certainly not going to cast the first stone.

    I do think that too much emphasis can be put on party platforms. Yes they excite partisans on both sides but at least in modern times are really mostly part of a marketing campaign and should be reported as such just as the conventions themselves are multi-day advertising extravaganzas. The additional part of this is that the other side will counter-market their point-of-view. In such events, the truth does not have much value because the #1 and #2 most important considerations is making the “sale”.

  • Geeves

    Remember how 2 people booing a question in a room of thousands at a debate became “Republicans boo gay marine.” Even our dear leader repeated that lie.

    Well, to be fair, and consistent, we would have to headline with “Democrats booed God”.

    Worse, these were delegates, not just whatever riffraff could get a ticket – a majority, not an infinitesimal – and they booed the mere mention of the word “God” in their platform, not an unfair question.

    It would be cool if the same rules applied in either case, but that’s too much to ask from partisan journalists and so-called “factcheckers”.

  • R. L. Hails Sr. P. E.

    Facts are hard to ignore. No mention of God in the platform. A Republican points it out. A movement from the floor requires 2/3 vote to add it. No honest person would judge it passed. History was made.

    The Democrats loudly booed the insertion of God in their platform statement. Can the media report truth? It happened.

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