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.

Gibson gets the grumps when the technology fails him; plus, he had come off a slightly accident-prone edition of ABC's "World News."

NBC had boasted that Rockefeller Center's famous ice-skating rink, eight stories below the studio where "Saturday Night Live" originates, would play a major role in reporting returns, but that turned out to be a fairly low-tech operation. An outline had been drawn in the ice, and then workers spray-painted in the red and blue states when the network would finally, sometimes hesitantly, call a state for Barack Obama or John McCain.

Anchor Brian Williams and anchor emeritus Tom Brokaw stopped early in the proceedings to remember the late Tim Russert, NBC's house pundit and "Meet the Press" moderator who had played such a lively and substantial role in election-night marathons. His absence was a handicap, but political ace Chuck Todd (also appearing on MSNBC) proved an able successor.

Todd, reporter Ann Curry and others took turns appearing in a virtual room that, thanks to computer trickery, looked like a miniature version of the Jefferson Memorial, with Curry assuming Jefferson's place. The reporters were actually standing on an all-green studio set.

And at CBS News, the decision was made to forgo the fancy high-tech trappings and emphasize the human element, with Couric anchoring and commentators Bob Schieffer (vigorous and helpful) and Jeff Greenfield (the proverbial fuddy-duddy) helping. The 2008 campaign, especially in recent months, marked a genuine comeback for Couric, who has been much maligned since moving to the evening news; she did the best of all network interviews with vice presidential candidate Palin.

Couric also distinguished herself in her interviews with Obama and McCain, the latter giving one of his last interviews of the campaign to her. It aired on last night's "CBS Evening News," and at one point, McCain was unexpectedly and perhaps unintentionally poignant when he said of the long campaign, "I'll never forget it as long as I live."

Among the most ominously absent voices: that of Dan Rather, the anchor who was ignominiously excommunicated from CBS after more than a quarter-century. Yet Rather was still a presence in election-night coverage, heading up the reporting on the under-funded HDNet channel, which is available in a limited number of American homes. Those who missed such phrases as "we have a hitch in our giddyup" could tune over to hear it on HDNet -- Rather in exile, the Bill Clinton of anchordom.

Fearful to an almost pathological point of calling states too soon (and being criticized for it later), networks took turns being wildly cautious, perhaps none more so than CNN. When it could have been calling Ohio for Obama, CNN instead cut to an election-night performance by Hank Williams Jr., a quixotic editorial decision and a ridiculous waste of time. The network might have bent too far backward in holding back results.

CNN's arsenal of glitz machines included a long vertical touch-screen at which Soledad O'Brien and veteran Bill Schneider called up states and demographic groups and analyzed their swings and sways. Standing together, they looked a bit like Nanny and the Professor. Once, when Schneider tapped the screen and no data appeared ("Whoops, it's not working"), plucky O'Brien told him "a little harder" and, following her cue, Schneider got the material to appear.

So it was that months and months of political warfare turned into another kind of battle: humans against machines. At last look, the humans were winning, but the race is too close to call.

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