A Few Leaders Emerge in TV Coverage

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.

As if to stoke Rather's tradition of dressing up facts and figures with such colloquial Texasisms, singer Kinky Friedman, running for governor of Texas as an independent, popped up on Tucker Carlson's MSNBC show in the late afternoon and said of his campaign, "We're hanging in there like a hair in a biscuit." Asked by Carlson what Friedman's first official act would be should he win, the candidate said: "Light up a Cuban cigar with my old traffic tickets."

CNN and MSNBC aired political news all day, as did cable neighbor Fox News Channel. They managed to keep reporting news even when there was no news to report. Once NBC signed on for its hour of results at 10 p.m., its competition included corporate comrade MSNBC, and some of the same network personalities appeared on both.

With NBC undergoing draconian cutbacks and layoffs ordered by owner General Electric, it seemed odd for NBC and MSNBC to be fighting for the same viewers. MSNBC's coverage had its own personality, however, thanks mainly to insatiable political gourmand Chris Matthews, with such lesser lights from the network as Keith Olbermann and Joe Scarborough redundantly at his side.

Even Matthews had his gaffes. He spent 30 seconds framing a question for a member of the network's panel of assembled experts, only to discover that new panelists had moved in.

Neil Cavuto, who hosts a less-than-indispensable daily show on Fox, got into an on-air shouting match with Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who understandably took exception when Cavuto kept interrupting him. In Cavuto's defense, Schumer seemed determined to talk as slowly and laboriously as possible, proving himself yet another Democrat who takes to television like a duck takes to oil.

The shining, gray-haired exception, of course, is Bill Clinton, whose appearances during the campaign inevitably, and sometimes spectacularly, livened things up. Unfortunately, he wasn't seen much on TV yesterday, except for perfunctory footage of him casting his ballot -- in Chappaqua, N.Y., with his wife.

Many an anchor or reporter seemed irked that he, like the public, would have to wait for genuine results before declaring winners. It used to be that to "call" an election meant to conclusively declare a winner based on counted votes as supplemented by exit polling. But now, when TV newzees say an election is "too close to call," they often mean too close to predict on the basis of exit polling alone.

Reporters were saying Monday night, 24 hours before the polls closed in many states, that certain elections were "too close to call." But of course, you're not supposed to "call" them a day ahead of time.

Similarly, one has to wonder how much the coverage affects the story when virtually everybody on every channel is parroting the same information. Day after day, TV journalists announced that the Democrats were all but certain to take control of the House and Senate -- largely because the Republicans were themselves divided over Iraq and over the competence of Bush, and thus were unlikely to turn out in large numbers.

How big a shock was it, then, when, in the final days before the election, Republican leaders and party faithful decided that having heard the same media message hundreds of times, maybe they'd defy the predictions, rally together and turn out in greater numbers than predicted? And perhaps even prevent the Democrats from taking the House or the Senate, thereby making pundit upon pundit look ridiculous?

Even if it accomplishes little else in the way of change, the midterm election did promote to genuine star status two fairly new and highly telegenic political figures: Rep. Harold Ford Jr., the Tennessee Democrat who failed in his bid for a Senate seat, and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who had a head start from the last Democratic convention. These two fresh faces help counter one negative image of Democrats on TV -- geezers peering over their spectacles, looking just this side of clueless.

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