Media coverage of the midterms: a load of pundits and technology explaining what we saw coming for weeks
Let’s say you’re an over-caffeinated, 24/7 media culture faced with covering a deluge of midterm elections Tuesday whose outcomes have been predicted in polls for days and weeks. What do you do?
Throw a mess of technology and big-name pundits at the whole mess and hope it all works out.
That seemed the story of media coverage Tuesday, where many news outlets treated the midterm election results like the Super Bowl and World Series combined – except for the fact that polls had predicted big losses for the Democrats and President Barack Obama for some time.
“Voters are about the give the political pendulum in this country a good shove,” noted NBC anchor Brian Williams, introducing coverage that included prime time reports and late night updates. But as the night progressed and more outlets began to predict a 50-seat loss in the House of Representatives, TV anchors' measured words grew bolder in describing a serious setback for the once-dominant Democrats.
“This is more than a message to Barack Obama, said CBS anchor Bob Schieffer, describing voters’ turn toward GOP candidates. “This is like a Halloween rerun.”
Daily Show host Jon Stewart spoofed the whole mess in a live show featuring clips of unrealistically optimistic Democratic politicians before results came in. “Democrats here are doubling down,” said correspondent Aasif Mandvi. “Today Nancy Pelosi had her right hand removed and replaced with a gavel.”
Given how much media was leveraged to tell all these stories, it’s best to review it all in bite-size excerpts. So here’s a quick look at some of the highlights from media coverage Tuesday.
Shakiest use of technology: CNN’s Election Matrix – Intended to allow a virtual representation of all the vote totals and exit polling under discussion, CNN’s computerized set seemed to have quite a few bugs, shaking oddly during some shots. The channel didn’t even use the technology much until 9:30 p.m. or so, when anchor Ali Velshi had to jump around the set to avoid having his face blocked by graphics rising up from nowhere. Perhaps a little more rehearsal was in order.
Best team up: ABC News and Facebook – Creating an online home where users could watch an online-only report, a Town Hall meeting, see election-related Facebook messages and click through to other stories, ABC offered an easy way to surf through a mountain of reaction and punditry (and I’m not just saying that because PolitiFact editor Bill Adair was one of the experts). Almost makes up for their next award…
Worst coverage decision: ABC News inviting Andrew Breitbart to their online town hall – Breitbart, the conservative blogger who got government employee Shirley Sherrod unjustly fired by releasing a video unfairly edited to make her look racist, was originally invited by ABC to participate in the online only town hall. When liberals and media critics objected, Breitbart insisted he was originally asked to be part of ABC’s broadcast coverage, which the network said was an exaggeration and disinvited him. Ironic and fitting all at once.
Best appropriation of Tim Russert’s ghost: Chris Wallace on Fox News – Wallace evoked memories of NBC’s deceased Meet the Press host, hoisting a small dry erase board to scribble out vote totals the same way Russert explained the voting dysfunction unfolding in Florida during the 2000 presidential election (if only Wallace was as clear in his explanations).
Biggest gang o’ pundits: CNN’s wall of opinionators – The cable channel convened what looked like a Baker’s dozen of pundits clustered around two tables on an expansive set. This meant, of course, that discussions occasionally got out of hand. Host Anderson Cooper at times simply gave up on trying to referee the gaggle of pundits, going to commercials as former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer faced off against David Gergen and Gloria Borger.
Most overheated praise for a Florida politician: Just before CNN called the state’s senate race for Marco Rubio, former Clinton advisor Paul Begala enthused, "he’ll be on everybody’s short list for vice president” as a link to the country’s Hispanic vote. Former partner James Carville had to point out the largely Cuban vote in Florida might be more conservative than Hispanic voters elsewhere.
Quickest prediction reversal: Fox News sage Bill O'Reilly advanced the notion that Democrats would lose the South in Congress minutes before the newschannel would predict Democrat Joe Manchin would keep former Senator Robert Byrd's seat in West Va.
Oddest John Boehner tan joke: CNN's Paul Begala, noting "2008 answered the question 'Are we ready for a black president?' 2010 will answer the question: 'Are we ready for an orange speaker?'" Even the Democrats on CNN's panel groaned.
Quickest deflation of media hype: Christine O’Donnell’s concession – Delaware’s oddball tea party favorite was the most-covered candidate in the midterm elections, with about 160 stories centered on her past admissions of witchcraft dabbling and chastity advocacy, according to the Pew Research Center.
But her race was called early Tuesday night, given polls showing her at a tremendous disadvantage in a Democratic-leaning state. Which may be the perfect metaphor for an election season with so much overheated coverage of an electoral trend most experts saw coming a long time ago.