The article originally appeared on The Hive, a section of VanityFair.com
It was going to be an historic election, whether the winner was the first woman or the first narcissist hotel-casino executive. But media coverage unavoidably turned virtual certitude into collective disbelief as steadfast assumptions about a clear Hillary Clinton victory crumbled while the presidency hung in the balance.
It was so surprising that even sober friends who cover politics wondered if the Russians had hacked into state election computers. How could every major survey be so errant? The Polling-Survey Industrial Complex would be in tatters, with derision targeted at both old standby operations or heralded data-driven gurus like Nate Silver.
“It’s 9:15,” said Judy Woodruff on PBS, underscoring surprise that one couldn’t call a winner in Virginia, thought to be pretty solid Clinton country. “This could put the voter projection industry out of business,” said CNN’s Jake Tapper.
Most had the odds of a Clinton win at over 65 percent. “This is not the repudiation for Donald Trump and Trumpism that a lot of Republicans in Washington and Democrats hoped. We are seeing a credible path for Trump to the White House.”
“Like, unbelievable, right?” declared a half-giddy Megyn Kelly on Fox News, prompting liberal Juan Williams to wonder, “What is the heart of this? ... Does this come back to Comey and the F.B.I.? I don’t know but something has happened. It’s revolutionary.”
By 11:37 p.m., Silver acknowledged that Democrats’ best hope if Trump won Wisconsin was a 269-269 tie. “This was a primal scream on the part of a lot of voters disenchanted with the status quo,” said CNN’s David Axelrod, an architect of President Obama’s two wins. Clinton, he noted, had “underperformed,” in the evening’s operative phrase.
But America was also witnessing the ongoing unraveling of another key political player: the All-Knowing Anchor. Coverage on cable and broadcast networks Tuesday evening was sharper than ever, from pundits to graphics, from demographics to cultural analyses.
Don’t mythologize a Cronkite-Brinkley-Brokaw past. This was vastly superior to days of old, partly for reasons of technology and giant corporate investments in what’s proven to be a Trump-driven ratings grabber during the past year.
“With every election, there appears to be more and more gaudy technology, spectacular gizmos, on display: Fox’s digital chandelier and ‘tower of closings’ presumably created to rival CNN’s now classic ‘Magic Wall,’” said Harvey Young, a dramatist and theater and African American studies expert at Northwestern University. “What is somewhat surprising is how unhelpful they appear to be. Live Facebook feeds, Instagram photos of pets wearing Trump sweaters, live voting returns from individual counties all provide little insight. In the end, there’s still a reliance on long-serving journalists to reflect on past elections, share conventional wisdom, and provide direction in the sea of big data.”
It remained a feast for political junkies and other democratic citizens, at least those who still engage in civic affairs and actually vote. But it was also the first truly multi-screen election, where the TV sets competed with some other device.
Facebook, Twitter and others were vehicles upon which the events of the evening played out. Upstarts like BuzzFeed offered eclectic live feeds, mostly with the work of others. The mix of news and quickie, one-line opinions could have held one in good stead if TV just isn’t your thing, as is the reality for growing armies of younger Americans.
The news bulletins (from Politico, CNN, MSNBC, you name the organization) were dispatching them in lightning fashion. It was just one manifestation of the various ways to consume sophisticated information without just staring at a box encased in injection-molded plastic.
“BREAKING,” heralded Politico, whose success has helped to alter political journalism. “Donald Trump has won Mississippi’s six Electoral College votes.” But wait! Before you could hit their link, it came back you with this: “BREAKING: Hillary Clinton has won Washington D.C.’s three Electoral College votes.” Now there was non-news news!
It went on all night, explaining why many millennials may have missed a bonafide TV extravaganza that had its fairly predictable lines, certainly when it came to the primary cable news networks: MSNBC as cozy home for Democrats, Fox ending a campaign in which it often appeared to be a precursor to the much-rumored Trump TV; and CNN, awash in platoons of pundits, but often quite clear-eyed, with a bravura performance by the maestro of its “Magic Wall,” John King.
Amid the hyperbole, the phony “Breaking News” banners, the ideologues, the frequently sweeping overstatements, King was, as a friend at Vanity Fair put it, “the steady captain and the night watchman on the bridge.”
Yup. Smartly, CNN seemed to eschew its platoon of pundits and give more time to King for microscopic analysis of the state-by-state drama, or what he understatedly kept calling a “remarkably competitive race.”
For sure, it was a grueling day for consuming media even before King, and his younger and sharpest rival, MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki, started poking at their giant combo maps of American and electronic boards. There was the march of surrogates, led by Trump partisan Rudy Giuliani, making what appeared to be his 1,343rd cable TV appearance defending Trump. One worried about potential post-traumatic media disorder (PTMD) if bookers stop calling after Tuesday.
Over at CNN, there was daylong deployment of its own Powell Doctrine (really the Weinberger Doctrine) of overwhelming force at play, especially with ground forces of pundit panel after pundit panel. But, notably, as the night wore on, the network eschewed many of them and went to King.
In a race where facts were so abused, the journalist methodically took viewers on a granular trek across his map, and turned theoretical disbelief into an almost county-by-county appreciation of a head-turning electoral reality.