PHILADELPHIA -- Every day at noon, a couple of blocks from the convention complex where GOP delegates held their caucuses, destitute men lined up for lunch on the sidewalk in front of the Ministry to the Homeless. It was not a photo op.

More than a few journalists were visiting Philadelphia -- in fact, about 15,000 of them arrived to cover the Republican National Convention. But midway through the week, an aide at the Ministry to the Homeless told me, not a single reporter had dropped by to inquire about the bedraggled spectacle.

"We feed homeless guys," the staff member said. "Yesterday, we fed 223." At least three-quarters of them, he estimated, were living on the streets in the City of Brotherly Love.

Is this kind of situation unusual for an American city? He shook his head. "There's homelessness wherever you go."

That night, I overheard a few delegates discussing news coverage of the convention. About the only negative theme emerging, they agreed, was that the event had been carefully staged. "If the criticism is that it's scripted," said one, "well, God bless it."

The next morning, the Fox TV broadcast network aired a live interview with the beautician in charge of Lynne Cheney's hair. "That's a pretty big responsibility," the Fox correspondent said. The key issue was: "hair spray vs. gel?"

Ritual and ordeal, the conventional pageant had to go on, while the mantra of "compassionate conservatism" repeated itself with unnerving regularity. Suitably sophisticated, media outlets made a habit of pausing to remark that the convention was an elaborately produced TV show -- but that didn't stop networks from effectively serving as co-producers.

Back at 1221 Race St., the downbeat realities of the Ministry to the Homeless illuminate some dehumanizing results when a society relies on voluntary "compassionate conservatism" -- or, for that matter, "compassionate liberalism" -- to provide meals and other crumbs off the tables of the most affluent society in the world. When we refuse to recognize that food, health care, housing, education and jobs are human rights, the glorification of charity is an index of social cruelty.

As Martin Luther King Jr. pointed out a third of a century ago, real compassion does not involve flinging coins at beggars; instead, the challenge for humanity is to transform the powerful institutions that create the need for begging in the first place. Today, the compelling reasons to struggle for economic justice have never been more acute.

Rather than entertain any such notions, mainstream politicians and most national media outlets are busy perpetuating vertigo for the public. If you're closely watching the coverage of a Republican or Democratic convention, you probably start to feel dizzy from all the spinning. Under the punched-up hot lights and color-coordinated decor inside the amphitheater, there's no space for honest spontaneity.

One of the most ironic moments of network TV coverage from Philadelphia came on the morning of Aug. 1, when a CBS correspondent -- live from the convention hall -- reported that clean-up crews were hard at work removing the massive amount of "graffiti" left over from the previous night's session. She meant to say "confetti." It was impossible to imagine that any of the GOP delegates would scrawl a word of real graffiti, unless of course it had been duly authorized by proper authorities.

Conformity can be deadly when combined with political power and popularized fantasies. In the relentless spinning game that takes no quarter in a presidential election year, simplistic flunkies for corporate America are apt to be presented as men wise beyond their years.

And so, on CNN's "Larry King Live," John McCain and Bob Dole went out of their way to proclaim that Dick Cheney is no right-wing zealot. George W. Bush's foreign policy adviser Condoleezza Rice voiced the remarkable claim that Bush is "someone of tremendous intellect."

Later in the week, presenting the usual media mix of ponderous centrism and conservative ideology, the same CNN program featured a protracted discussion with a panel that included someone familiar to many baby boomers and their parents. Blending easily into the rigid discourse was none other than former 1950s television icon Art Linkletter. Yes, people are funny. But sometimes, not very.

Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His latest book is The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media.