washingtonpost.com  > Columns > Tom Shales

Red, Blue and Maybe: Timid Television

By Tom Shales
Wednesday, November 3, 2004; Page C01

It looks as though the networks signed on an hour or two, or five, too early to report the results of the 2004 presidential election. Information oozed very slowly out of the tube last night as the anchors and correspondents struggled to make something watchable out of almost nothing.

The audience may have felt like the refugees in the movie "Casablanca," who, an opening narration famously says, come to the desert city "and wait, and wait, and wait." But at least the video games and other gadgetry have improved since the last election, the one that took weeks to settle and got the 21st century off to a perhaps appropriate bungled beginning.




John Roberts on CBS had wizardly video touch screens to play with and draw on last night and seemed to love every minute. On NBC, although it was horribly corny to rename much of the area at the base of Rockefeller Center "Democracy Plaza," it was cool that the ice rink had been turned into a map of the states and that the states could be red or blue depending on who won them, George W. Bush or John Kerry.

CBS's graphics included the cutest little lumbering elephant and galloping donkey, both computer-animated, for displays that showed current results, what few there were, and which party dominated the state in the year 2000. Come into the living room, kids, and see the little pachyderm and the little ass!

A few minutes past 10 o'clock, with three hours of coverage behind them, Bob Schieffer of CBS News, reporting to anchor Dan Rather, did a brave thing. He admitted progress was almost nil in telling or even indicating who might win the election. "The only thing that has been called here tonight are the slam-dunks," Schieffer grumped, pointing out that states expected to go to Bush went to Bush and those expected to go to Kerry went to -- guess who -- Kerry.

"The battleground states where this election is going to be decided," Schieffer said, "are still too close to call. We're no farther here now than we were three or four hours ago as to having even a clue as to who's going to win tonight."

Cue the little donkey! Cue the little elephant!

Tom Brokaw, reporting his last election for NBC News, at least as principal anchor, was getting a little peeved himself at the absence of information. "You want reality television? This is reality television," he told viewers, promising them that "someone will be voted off the island," but that there was really no way of telling when. There was talk that Florida with its 94,000 absentee votes -- the state that gummed up the works in 2000 -- wouldn't have conclusive vote totals until today or tomorrow, depending on which network you listened to.

"The states we can't call are stacked up like cordwood," said Chris Wallace over on cable's Fox News Channel. Rather, with his gift for imagery, compared the situation to "a kind of sauna" in which all anybody could do "is wait and sweat." Of course Rather remained the soul of indomitability, even as others threatened to wilt. Just before announcing a few new numbers he said, "Let's drop these biscuits in a little bit more gravy" and later, marveling at one set of numbers, shouted, "But looka here, whoo, boy!"

Attempting to inject some life into the proceedings, he also reported, "George Bush is sweeping through the South like a big wheel through a cotton field."

CNN had perhaps the most elaborate visual display, a huge curved wall that suggested maybe Cinerama, the widescreen movie process, was making a comeback. The huge wraparound display was filled with so much information that it was really impossible to read much of it. And because it was divided into squares, giant projected faces of interview subjects looked subdivided.

Rather said the networks were being especially cautious because of lessons learned in the past. But Washington Post assistant managing editor Bob Woodward, on CNN, told the TV newsies, "There are limitless chances to still get things wrong" and said the caution was so palpable it looked as though the networks "have taken a Valium cooler or something."

Had they taken Valium, or were they somehow doling it out through the airwaves and cables that bring TV into the homes and bars of the nation? The night was sure full of numbing inspirations. Somebody at CNN decided to drop anchor Paula Zahn inexplicably into the cast of "Crossfire." It was a misfire. Series regular James Carville looked so irritated that during some of the segments, he barely spoke.

Zahn, bright and chirpy as a yellow thrush, was absurdly out of place.

As midnight approached, ABC gave Florida, that troublesome paradise, to Bush, which combined with the rest of Kerry's bad news made it look very difficult for him to pull off an upset victory. (We finally figured out who he looks like: Jay Leno's grandfather.) It appeared just as unlikely that Bush would win by anything approaching a wide margin. Of course, that didn't faze him last time.

So here we have come, after all those weeks of jumping up and down and carrying on (sort of like the crowds that could be seen through the windows of some of the network sets last night), right back to where we started. Or so it appeared at beddy-bye time. And to think of all the time, energy and money that was spent. "Politics is so expensive," Rather had colloquially noted, "it takes a lot of money just to get beat with."

CNN's pompous Aaron Brown, meanwhile, had told anchor Wolf Blitzer, "I enjoy how much I have heard 'we don't know' [tonight]." Surely he was the only one. Or maybe the laws of journalism are changing so much that some day soon a network newscast might begin, "In the news tonight -- we don't know." It really wasn't "we don't know," though. It was more, "We're afraid to tell you."


© 2004 The Washington Post Company