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Jul 22, 2016

The real star of the 1968 conventions: Now you really are there

tags: political conventions,television cameras,Edwin Newman,Marcel LaFollette,Smithsonian Archives

Watching the roving television coverage of the national political conventions and the concomitant demonstrations outside, I’m struck by the invisibility of the cameras and microphones (and now smartphones) that make it possible for us to feel that “you are there.”  As Marcel LaFollette shows in her recent blog from the Smithsonian Archives, this ability to take the viewer to the political action, staged or spontaneous, really began only in 1968. 

The ability of television reporters to report from anywhere on the convention floor produced a very different perspective of the conventions.  Instead of focusing on the speaker at the podium, grand overviews, and interviews conducted in prepared rooms, now viewers could go wherever the reporter went.  The result was a more intimate, action-oriented convention that was harder for the convention organizers to control.  

Science Service, Up Close: Technology and Political Conventions

by Marcel Chotkowski LaFollette on July 19, 2016 

In a Presidential election year, political news coverage can sometimes seem almost too instantaneous and continuous. Thanks to smartphones with cameras and microphones, journalists and citizens can relay images and sound from almost anywhere inside campaign activities. There was a time, however, when live broadcasting from political conventions and rallies was novel.

Starting in 1948, U.S. networks began televising the party conventions, and by 1968, innovations in communications and battery technologies allowed live reports from the convention floor. Journalists could roam around an event, interviewing interesting people, gathering information, and encouraging a sense of vicarious participation among television viewers.

For its pathbreaking television coverage of the August 1968 national political conventions in the United States, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) outfitted four of its top commentators (John Chancellor, Frank McGee, Edwin Newman, and Sander Vanocur) with special backpacks.

In these photographs from the Science Service biographical files, Edwin Newman (1919-2010) modeled the “compact belt-borne” microphone system that he and his NBC colleagues would be wearing while covering the party conventions in Chicago and Miami Beach. Newman had become a mainstay of the network’s political coverage, building on his decades of experience as a print reporter and European correspondent for NBC News and his intelligence and irrepressible sense of humor.

The new microphone system, developed by Cutler-Hammer's Airborne Instruments Laboratory, provided wireless, portable, battery-operated, two-way communication between a reporter and a network director in the booth.

The accompanying press release noted that the unit’s weight was “only” 3-1/4 pounds and that the “over-sized tie clip” was the “transmitter on-off switch” but it did not mention Newman’s characteristically wry addition: what appears to be a candidate campaign button on his lapel is an image of the journalist’s own face.

Related Resources

Collecting political history, from the Iowa Caucus to the national conventions, O Say Can You See? blog, National Museum of American History

Hooray for Politics!, National Museum of American History

Vote: The Machinery of Democracy, National Museum of American History

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