A Few Leaders Emerge in TV Coverage

Charles Gibson got a half-hour head start on ABC's broadcast competition on election night.
Charles Gibson got a half-hour head start on ABC's broadcast competition on election night. (By Ida Mae Astute -- Abc)
By Tom Shales
Wednesday, November 8, 2006

So maybe she didn't exactly electrify the nation. Even so, Katie Couric affably took charge last night on her maiden voyage as CBS's anchor of a marathon news event: Election Day 2006, when the Republicans hit an iceberg.

Couric perhaps appeared a tad diminutive compared with her counterparts on the other major broadcast networks, but mainly because they are more experienced, and looked more familiar, in the anchor role.

Brian Williams looked most clearly in command on NBC -- with his predecessor, Tom Brokaw, and "Meet the Press" moderator Tim Russert assisting him. Charles Gibson was solid though not showy on ABC, occasionally flashing wry wit, as when he said of Hillary Rodham Clinton's landslide reelection to the Senate from New York: "That has all the surprise of a Doris Day movie."

No slouch either was ABC correspondent Terry Moran, who reported from Democratic campaign headquarters that the partying party members were wallowing in the thrill of victory: "They can feel it, they can taste it, they can smell it -- and they're starting to drink it, in fact."

ABC's election coverage got the jump on its big competitors by signing on at 9:30 p.m., a half-hour before NBC and CBS. "Exciting it will be indeed tonight," said Gibson, greeting viewers and sounding a little like Yoda. ABC even ran suspense-movie music under Gibson as he rattled off the races that could be called at that hour, with extremely knowledgeable assistance from George Stephanopoulos.

It was a little wearying to see Russert pull out his wipe-away white board again, especially when compared with the Cinerama-like super-screen on CNN's massive election night set. The screen -- which flashed results, graphics, photos and everything but instructions on how to eat crow -- gave CNN the edge in special effects.

Wolf Blitzer, mercifully more animated than usual, and the scholarly Jeff Greenfield paraded back and forth in front of CNN's screen. Most of the commentators on most of the networks, backed by exit poll results and slews of lit-up laptops, agreed that it was a bad night for President Bush and his defense of the Iraq war, and that this was a very nationalized election in even the tiniest precincts.

CBS might have made the most concerted effort at explaining what the results meant to real people, not just political junkies. Staff expert Gloria Borger said that as a result of the election, the country effectively has a three-party system: Republicans, Democrats and the administration.

The larger questions were recycled by anchors and pundits throughout the day: Who'd take the key races? Would a big turnout mean a late Republican rally? And surely Topic A backstage in Media Land -- would Couric triumph or bumble anchoring this event?

On CBS, it was the first election night in decades not anchored by Dan Rather -- but he did appear as a guest commentator on Comedy Central's "Midterm Midtacular," a cable special combining "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report."

Host Jon Stewart questioned Rather about the results and their significance but expressed disappointment when Rather said calmly that Sen. Clinton won reelection by "a healthy margin." Stewart told Rather they wanted him to be more Ratherly, more homespun. After balking, Rather good-naturedly lampooned himself and said of Clinton, "She ran away with it like a hobo with a sweet potato pie." The crowd cheered.

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