When I spoke with NBC News’ Steve Kornacki by phone late last week, he was testing himself with flashcards.
Not like times tables or state capitals or anything that kids use to get ready for a big test.
Then again, come to think of it, he was brushing up on numbers and all the counties in the state of Virginia. And, well, he was cramming for today’s big test: Election Day.
By now, you know Kornacki — wearing his tie and shirt with the rolled-up sleeves and khakis, standing in front of a U.S. map while fueled on Diet Cokes and frantically spouting off and analyzing election results. He has something of a cult following, and not just among political junkies. He landed on the list of People magazine’s “Sexiest Men Alive,” right alongside the likes of Michael B. Jordan and Chris Evans.
“Trust me, I’m as baffled as anybody by all that,” Kornacki, 42, told me. “I really am. I never expected any of that stuff and I don’t fully understand it. I’m grateful for the nice things that people said.”
Among the nicest: The guy knows his stuff. Which brings us back to today’s Election Day across America. While there are pivotal races going on all over the country, Kornacki figures he’ll spend much of tonight focused on the intense gubernatorial showdown in Virginia between former governor and Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe and Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin. Perhaps a bellwether race, Kornacki has started calling this the first race of the 2022 midterms.
Kornacki has spent the past several weeks using his flashcards and spreadsheets to look at past voting trends, calling state election officials, and trying to figure out how the results will come in tonight. The amount of information he will have available will be enormous.
“About 99% of it, I won’t use on the air,” Kornacki said. “It can be a little depressing when I think of it that way. But you’ve got to be prepared for that 1% that you might need.”
Kornacki has been doing the big board for MSNBC since 2014, but became something of a household name last November as the battle between Joe Biden and Donald Trump stretched into the weekend. Kornacki did more than just read off results, which, really, anyone can do. His job was to explain why the voting results were coming in as they were — taking into account things such as early voting, mail-in ballots and voting trends among Democrats and Republicans. Lessons learned in 2020 will help him tonight with Virginia.
“This is a very simple recipe for confusion for people when you’ve got all these different types of votes coming in — in large batches and they can swing wildly,” Kornacki said. “One’s going to be hugely Democratic, one’s going to be hugely Republican. Why are these votes like this? Even assuming good faith on everyone’s behalf, that’s a recipe for confusion. So my goal is just to not be saying, ‘Oh hey, look, Fairfax County just went from 65% Republican to 62% Democratic.’ It’s also to be explaining the nuts and bolts of what just happened. Again, the preparation is the only way I’m going to know. … It’s the challenge I have, but it’s the best I can do. I want to be prepared to do it.”
Kornacki uses the analogy of an old Polaroid picture: It takes a while for it to develop and come into focus.
“To me, that’s what looking at the map looks like on Election night,” Kornacki said. “I love doing it. I love the role that I have. But, there can be a lot of stress that goes with it.”
Kornacki realizes that viewers often hang on his every word. Take 2020. For days, as Election Day turned into Election Week, Biden and Trump supporters waited impatiently for Kornacki’s next update, hoping their candidate was gaining ground or holding steady. They often blamed Kornacki when the latest update didn’t go their way.
“Whatever side you’re on, everyone wants to know who is winning,” Kornacki said. “Everybody wants to know why. Hopefully, my role gives me the opportunity to speak across that big political divide that we have.”
Kornacki’s limitless energy and easily digestible plainspeak made him a favorite among viewers, which led to him becoming so popular. Always modest, Kornacki said it wasn’t just about him.
“I never in my life thought I’d see 160 million people voting in a presidential election,” Kornacki said. “Just goes to show you how high the interest was across the board.”
Kornacki has always been into politics and elections, even as a kid. He remembers being a senior in high school when President Bill Clinton ran against Bob Dole.
“There wasn’t a single person who I went to school with who cared that it was Dole vs. Clinton,” Kornacki said, laughing. “Very few even knew that it was Dole vs. Clinton. I knew much better than to show up at a party talking about Dole vs. Clinton.”
These days, Kornacki would be the cool kid at the party.
NBC, looking to capitalize on Kornacki’s popularity, tried to figure out other high-profile ways to use him. NBC Sports had the idea last year to put him on the most-watched show on TV: “Sunday Night Football.” Kornacki would use his projection skills and number crunching, as well as his love of football, to give viewers playoff probabilities for NFL teams. When Kornacki was asked, his immediate reaction was, “Sunday Night Football? Are you kidding me?”
But he did have a concern.
“I just don’t want it to be a gimmick,” Kornacki said. “You know, crazy guy from the board, let’s put him in front of NFL stuff and everybody will have a chuckle. I wanted it to be useful information.”
It was. As was his work on the network’s horse racing coverage. In fact, he even accurately picked the Kentucky Derby winner.
“I can’t tell you how ridiculous that was,” Kornacki said. “I’ve been waiting 20 years to pick a winner. But I picked the right one to get it right.”
He’ll return to horse racing after tonight’s special coverage on MSNBC, helping out on NBC’s Breeders’ Cup coverage this weekend. (Viewers can stream the Kornacki Cam nonstop at MSNBC.com throughout MSNBC’s special coverage.)
Then it’s back to politics and elections. The midterms are a year from now — or just around the corner as far as political observers are concerned.
“It’s already daunting to think about,” Kornacki said. “I’m already working on it.”
Covering the ‘Rust’ shooting story
I just wanted to take a moment to commend the excellent work being done by the Los Angeles Times covering the deadly shooting on the set of Alec Baldwin’s movie, “Rust.”
Over the weekend, Times reporters Meg James, Amy Kaufman and Julia Wick had a detailed account with their story: “The day Alec Baldwin shot Halyna Hutchins and Joel Souza.”
The Times has been ahead of everyone on this tragic story, and you should check out their work.
Word of the year
Each year, the Oxford Languages, the creator of the Oxford English Dictionary, names a “word of the year.” Unlike some past words — such as “selfie” and “podcast” — this year’s word of the year is a bit more depressing.
The 2021 word of the year is “vax.”
In its announcement, Oxford said, “When our lexicographers began digging into our English language corpus data it quickly became apparent that vax was a particularly striking term. A relatively rare word in our corpus until this year, by September it was over 72 times more frequent than at the same time last year. It has generated numerous derivatives that we are now seeing in a wide range of informal contexts, from vax sites and vax cards to getting vaxxed and being fully vaxxed, no word better captures the atmosphere of the past year than vax.”
One could make the argument that “vax” isn’t totally somber. As NPR’s Joe Hernandez wrote, “Many see the promise of protection against COVID-19 provided by the vaccine as a welcome scientific advancement.
Trust in the media
In an interview with Women’s Wear Daily media writer Marisa Guthrie, “NBC Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt talked about trust in the media, saying, “Some percentage of people out there have signed on to that notion that the mainstream media can’t be trusted. … But what we can take away from (criticism) is to be better. And to really think about how we say things and how we report things. And that sometimes criticism is on the money. … We have to be more vigilant because we’re not going to move this mountain and bring all these people back to the idea that we’re trustworthy all at once. I think one thing we’re beyond now, is this fear of looking political. It’s not political to give facts. It may have a political reaction, but on our part, it’s not political. And I think that was a hard part for a lot of us to get past; that idea that we can confront this stuff and call it out for what it is, and not have a political agenda.”
Holt also had interesting remarks about his essays and remarks on the “NBC Nightly News.”
“I write them very, very carefully to avoid what I think are crossing any major lines,” Holt said. “And I do have this platform, I do have a voice. And I do use it occasionally. But I try and walk up to a line where I’m not giving an opinion, but more perspective. Sometimes the news is coming at us now. Like it’s coming through a firehose, and this is a moment that we could say, stand back and like, this is what we’re facing. Right? This is happening. We need to think about this. And, you know, much to my surprise, they’ve been received pretty well. You always get criticism, but I think generally they’ve been appreciated. Which is nice.”
Like every year during the World Series, there are tons of complaints about the length of baseball games and just how late they end. Paul Hembekides, a content producer for ESPN’s “Get Up,” tweeted that each of the five games of the World Series has ended well past 11 p.m. Eastern: Game 1 at 12:15 a.m., Game 2 at 11:20 p.m., Game 3 at 11:33 p.m., Game 4 at 11:54 p.m. and Game 5 at 12:15 a.m. Hembekides also noted that the past 29 World Series games have ended after 11 p.m. Eastern, including 11 games that have gone past midnight. Of course, the games are ending at a much more reasonable time in the other U.S. time zones.
Many critics are tying dwindling TV ratings for the World Series to the length of games and the late ending times. Late nights could eliminate many viewers who have to get up early for work or school, and have an impact on kids not becoming fans. After all, they aren’t able to see baseball’s most important moments live.
- Jake Tapper will host a CNN special this Friday called “Trumping Democracy: An American Coup.” With interviews and new details from Republican officials, the special looks at the events of Jan. 6, as well as the campaign attacking the credibility of the election well before Jan. 6. The special airs at 9 p.m. Eastern.
- Ben Smith’s latest media column for The New York Times: “Learning to Live With Mark Zuckerberg.”
- Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton with “What happens when the news desert is in your own backyard?”
- In the second episode of the “What Works” podcast — a podcast about the future of local news from Northeastern University’s School of Journalism — hosts Ellen Clegg and Dan Kennedy talk with the investigative reporter Julie Reynolds and her coverage of Alden Global Capital.
- The New York Times’ John Koblin writes about FX’s “Impeachment: American Crime Story” in “The TV Hit That Wasn’t.”
- The U.S. Postal Service has announced several new stamps to be issued in 2022 and it includes one honoring the late Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham.
- The Information’s Jessica Toonkel and Sahil Patel are reporting that FanDuel and DraftKings are among the companies that have submitted bids to buy The Athletic, the ad-free, subscription-based sports site. The Athletic hired LionTree in September to help find a buyer or investor. That came after discussions with Axios and The New York Times. Obviously, neither one of those potential sales/mergers panned out. The Information had previously reported that The Athletic was seeking a sale at a possible valuation of $750 million.
- Sports Illustrated’s Brandon Sneed writes about the tragic death of football player Colt Brennan in “From Heisman Hopeful to the Dark Side.” And worth mentioning, the Los Angeles Times’ Jeff Miller wrote about Brennan back in June.
- By ProPublica and NPR, Caroline Chen (and photographs by Talia Herman) with “Babies Are Dying of Syphilis. It’s 100% Preventable.”
- Here’s a splendid photo project in The New York Times’ “The World Through A Lens” series. From Frank Herfort: “The Stunning Grandeur of Soviet-Era Metros.”
Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More resources for journalists
- Subscribe to Alma Matters – Poynter’s new newsletter for college journalism educators
- Join us at our virtual Celebration of Journalism honoring Lesley Stahl on Nov. 10 — Tickets.
- Table Stakes: Poynter’s Local News Innovation Program — Jan. 5-Nov. 30, 2022, Apply by Nov. 15, 2021
- Redistricting and Elections (Webinar) — Nov. 17 at noon Eastern
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