After a Night of Illusions, Television Records Reality

By Tom Shales
Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Just as one day was giving way to another, Barack Obama appeared before thousands of cheering supporters in Chicago's Grant Park and said, "Change has come to America" -- which naturally made them cheer all the louder.

It was the beginning of the climax to a long and suspenseful evening of election returns, the nation riveted for hours to television, the Internet, radio or their hand-held 21st-century gadgets -- wherever they could get the news about what had miraculously happened during the day.

Obama's victory speech -- before a crowd that CBS anchor Katie Couric estimated at 125,000 -- was actually shorter than John McCain's concession speech. The 44th president-elect spoke of challenges as well as victories, reciting a "Yes, we can" litany of promises to be made and kept as the nation struggles its way out of economic catastrophe and a debilitating national disillusionment.

The young victor also praised the courage and integrity of his defeated opponent. When Obama mentioned McCain's name, there didn't seem to be any boos coming from the crowd, as there were in Phoenix moments before. And so Obama didn't have to shush any disgruntled bad sports. In fact there was a cheer for McCain that was inspired by Obama's gentlemanly praise.

Network anchors and reporters vied for airtime in which to express their own elation at Obama's win, and a sometimes inappropriate personal sense of victory; were reporters who said they were thrilled by Obama's winning sort of confirming charges of pro-Obama bias that had been leveled by McCain forces during the campaign? Perhaps in the historic grandeur of the moment, it didn't really matter. Bigger issues were at stake, bigger matters lay ahead.

Before Obama appeared, however, viewers saw and heard McCain, speaking from Phoenix, give perhaps the most beautiful speech of his career, a concession speech such as none of us ever heard before. McCain began by acknowledging Obama's victory and continued by analyzing the significance of it and finding it a very good thing.

When a goon or two in the crowd booed the mention of Obama's name, McCain held out his hands in a "stop" gesture and said, "Please, please." He clearly wanted to put all conflict behind him as he pledged his support to the new president in a particularly moving and eloquent way.

There was no way such a long story as the 2008 campaign was going to have a short, snappy ending. And so it was that although the networks signed on with election-night coverage right after their evening newscasts, and stayed on through prime time and beyond, viewers had to watch and wait for hours before learning anything blessedly solid about the next president of the United States.

Until 11 p.m., when all the networks gave the election to Obama and cameras showed the surging, cheering crowds, gathered in Grant Park to celebrate the historic moment.

To fill time and space, the networks hemmed and hawed and hemmed again, reiterating all the variables -- and even hauled out their latest high-tech toys.

At about 7:15 last night, reporter Jessica Yellin materialized from Chicago via "hologram" at CNN studios while an amused Wolf Blitzer looked on. Yellin said she felt like Princess Leia in "Star Wars." She looked like her, too, outlined with a thin, white halo of eerie light. It was a cute trick, but how did it substantially contribute to the coverage? No one seemed to know.

ABC News bragged that it would turn all of Times Square into a TV studio, but mainly that consisted of going outside the studios usually occupied by "Good Morning America" and taking pictures of shouting crowds who, in turn, looked up to see televised pictures of -- themselves. Charlie Gibson seemed disdainful of the contributions made by co-anchors Diane Sawyer -- who energized the coverage the way Sarah Palin energized the Republicans, but without winks -- and George Stephanopoulos.

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