Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The View From the Couch

Election night 2008 was the first in nearly 30 years I wasn't huddled down in some stuffy newsroom, munching cold pizza and sipping lukewarm coffee while pouring over election returns, pushing deadlines to the breaking point.

Instead, I watched from home, Joe Viewer absorbing the coverage as the electronic media tackled the most historic election since Lincoln.

What follows is a highly unscientific survey of what TV had to offer, recorded by a guy who was watching election night coverage in earnest for the first time since the Nixon Administration.

Monday: A day largely characterized by talking heads. The best, CNN, featured a cadre of pros from both sides who actually had the courtesy not to try to outshout each other.

The worst: CNBC, the business channel, who had a group that gave the Tower of Babal a good name. All spoke at the same time and then cranked up the volume in a futile attempt to be heard over the others. If you like splitting headaches, this was for you.

CNN persisted in running a scroll across the bottom of the screen that said, "Breaking News: Obama, McCain urge people to vote." That's news, breaking or otherwise?

Meanwhile, the Fox folks ran a scroll during a live feed of an Obama speech that said, "More McCain backers fear voter fraud than Obama backers."

When it comes to creating paranoia, nobody does it like Fox.

Over on MSNBC, Keith Olbermann is making fun of John McCain. I remember Olberman when he was a sports reporter. He wasn't any good at that, either.

Back at the business channel, anchor Maria Bartiromo is interviewing Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa Jr. But soon, her interview becomes a full out attack on union practices and policies. Later, CNBC's Larry Kudlow, an old Reagan hand, is in full rant about what he sees as the death of the coal industry under Obama.

In the middle of it all, Obama and McCain appear on Monday Night Football, interupting a good football game with chit chat.

Tuesday: Election day. Every network has reporters swarming around polling places like flies on a rib roast. It's unclear what their mission is. Voter fraud? Exit polling? Long lines? Mostly, you have a cadre of people looking into a camera and reporting that everything is normal.

Except in Philadelphia.

There, the Fox people have swooped down into a quiet precinct to report that Black Panthers are intimating voters at a local precinct.

Wow, Black Panthers? Haven't heard from them in years.

Fox offers video of two black men wearing leather jackets standing in front of the polling place. One carries a nightstick.

This becomes a top-of-the-page story until the Philadelphia DA's office announces that this was a "non-incident" and that there is no connection betweem the two men and the Black Panther party.

"We don't need anybody trying to trump up anything or generate any kind of excitement," said Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter.

The story disolves.

Next up on Fox is columninst Laura Ingrham who proclaims that American conservatives have not lost anything in this election since McCain was not a conservative.

In the meantime, MSNBC is interviewing televangelist Bishop T.D. Jakes, which seems odd since religion doesn't appear to be an issue and is never discussed.

Suddenly, it's 4 o'clock, crunch time.

CNN broadcasts from a set that looks like it came from the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics, except more expensive.

It features interactive computerized maps that are so whiz bang high tech it's hard to follow the content.

If that's not enough, they project a reporter from Chicago into their New York studios via a hologram. It's kind of like having Princess Lea on the staff. Unfortunately, the technology trumps the message. She has little to contribute.

On the low tech side, NBC and MSNBC are painting states red or blue on a map of the United States superimposed on the skating rink at Rockefeller Plaza. I keep trying to imagine why you would project a presidential election onto ice. I can't.

The first projected winner in delcared at 4:02 p.m., Pacific time. McCain takes Kentucky, Obama Vermont. Strangely enough, all stations seem to make their declarations at the same time.

As the evening wears on, however, Fox seems to be a step ahead in declaring winners.

Time drags It looks grim for McCain. Many quote sources inside the McCain camp that a win seems unlikely. Even Joe the Plumber says McCain's chances are slim.

Is it anticlimatic? Not if you lived through the election of 2000.

At approximately 8 p.m., Obama is declared winner. The crowds tell the story. It is spontaneous and moving beyond belief.

"This is man on the moon," Olbermann says.

"In a country that was stained by slavery, he is now president of the United States," says David Gregory on MSNBC. "The ultimate color line has now been crossed."

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