It was torture. For nearly four years, CNN has forked over its network to following Trump’s every step — every offensive tweet, every diplomatic stumble, every coronavirus misstep. Those who’ve flocked to the all-Trump-all-the-time channel have come to rely on Daniel Dale’s fact-checks, Jake Tapper’s rigorous cross-examinations of lying Trump officials, Anderson Cooper’s shredding of White House hypocrisy. And now, early on election night, King was standing before them all, detailing how Biden’s numbers in key parts of Florida weren’t measuring up.
We don’t have any polling that reveals the election-night mood of CNN viewers, but we’ll hazard a guess: not fun.
The imperatives of election coverage in the midst of a pandemic have only compounded the anguish. Key states in the presidential contest forbade the counting of mail-in ballots before Election Day, meaning that projections were even harder to make during prime-time hours and beyond. The result was that King, the central narrator of CNN’s presentation, spent hours and hours reminding viewers that “it’s early,” “we are waiting,” “we’re not at the finish line,” “we’re just starting the night in Pennsylvania, so we have to be careful,” “it’s an incomplete picture,” “it’s very frustrating, but we just need to wait it out.” And so on.
CNN is CNN, by which we mean that all opportunities to hype even the smallest of new increments are seized. So even when there was nothing to declare, there was still something to announce. At 10 p.m., host Wolf Blitzer said, “We got a ’key race alert’ right now. We believe it’s too early to call in Iowa, for example, six electoral votes right there, too early to call. In Nevada, right there, six electoral votes. Too early to call in Utah right now as well — another six electoral votes there. It’s too early to call in the state of Montana, three electoral votes.”
“Key race alert” is in quotes for a reason — it’s a CNN gimmick that helps to segment coverage that would otherwise become an endless blur of analysis, graphics and warnings to stay patient. The “key race alert” is to election night what the “breaking news” banner is to any other night.
And with that, we’ll cease throwing elbows at the CNN election-night crew. This was a careful and slow-footed presentation of election results, and we mean that as a compliment. In the past two decades, television news operations have learned over and over again that making premature calls in presidential elections can provide an immediate sugar rush yielding to an eventual credibility deficit. Stack that on wrong battleground polls in 2016 — which looks to have been repeated in 2020 — and there’s simply no upside to joining the race to call the race.
Disparate approaches to state calls created a moment of drama, anyway: Just before 1 a.m. on Wednesday, CNN chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta delivered a report to his colleagues indicating that the Trump campaign had complained to another network that it had prematurely called Arizona for Biden. That network appeared to be Fox News, whose widely respected decision desk had declared the Grand Canyon State for the former vice president at 11:20 p.m. “There is great distress inside the Trump campaign right now,” said Acosta. “I talked to a couple advisers just a short time ago. They are very upset that one of the other networks called Arizona for Joe Biden; they have been trying to convince the other networks to not call Arizona for Joe Biden. They’re worried that if Arizona goes to Joe Biden, their path to victory narrows.”
At that point, CNN hadn’t called Arizona for either candidate. After a bogus rumor circulated on social media indicating that Fox News had retracted its call, it brought out its decision-desk chief to declare that, no, in fact, the network stood by its Arizona projection. Get your research in order before messing with the Fox News decision guys, as Karl Rove discovered in 2012.
Yet this night belonged to the fellows breaking down the returns on screens. At Fox News, that was Bill Hemmer, a smooth-talking veteran of cable election coverage; at MSNBC, that was Steve Kornacki, effusive in white shirt sleeves. And on CNN, it was King, who spoke all night in short and crisp statements of geo-demo-political reality. By around 1:30 a.m., pivotal returns started to peter out, forcing King to demonstrate all the various electoral college possibilities open to the candidates with results in states such as Georgia, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania still unclear.
By the time they went to bed, CNN viewers had seen every conceivable path of victory for both Biden and Trump. King went deep, for example, in breaking down the likely tilt of still-to-be counted votes in Michigan. “We need to count the votes. We need to get to the finish line,” he said, after explaining Wayne and Macomb counties.
Moments later, King faced a technical hiccup with his display. CNN went to a commercial then came back with the umpteenth “key race alert,” this one on Arizona and Nevada. Ho-hum.
Soon King was back at it: “The one flip on the map so far in terms of a state would be Arizona if we get this to the finish line,” said King. “Fifty-two ... to 46 right there, again: This is Maricopa County and the suburbs embracing Joe Biden four years after Donald Trump carried the county — narrowly, but carried the county. It’s the biggest part of the state. It’s a big deal, because if you’re Joe Biden, you’re trying to flip something on the map and you’ve been disappointed in Florida, disappointed in Texas, disappointed in Ohio, probably to be disappointed in North Carolina.”
So it went all night long, as King delivered measured and clinical discussions of the voting totals, punctuated each time by his regrets that the network couldn’t say anything more. Things took a turn for the edgy, however, after Trump made an appearance at the White House to say that he’d won the election. All of a sudden, CNN’s training during years of Trump coverage kicked in. It was time, once again, to tell the truth about a liar: “President Trump, as we anticipated, falsely and prematurely declaring victory, saying that he won,” Tapper said. “He did not win. He has not won. … Almost everything he said in his declaration of victory was not true.”
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