February 4, 2020

Nothing yet to see here

What do you talk about when you have nothing to talk about?

That’s one way to look at the mass confusion that was Monday night’s TV coverage of the Iowa caucuses. And yet it was absolutely fascinating television as the networks, most notably CNN and MSNBC, scrambled to unexpectedly fill hours of air time.

Long after results were supposed to be in, the networks were left looking at a big board with nothing on it but zeroes as something — and no one knew for sure what — went wrong.

There was finger pointing, overreactions, anger, humor, wild guesses and educated conjecture. CNN’s Jake Tapper called it a “mess.” CNN’s Wolf Blitzer called it a “huge, huge embarrassment for the Iowa Democratic party.” CNN’s Chris Cuomo, at 1 a.m. Eastern on Tuesday morning, called it “an epic failure.” Even then, we were no closer to a result or even an official explanation for what the heck happened.

We all knew something seemed a little off early on, but it was a little after 10 p.m. Eastern when CNN political director David Chalian sounded the alarm that something was wrong. Like really wrong. That’s when the coverage shifted from a waiting game to the guessing game to the blame game.

At that point, there were three overall themes in the coverage.

One was questioning the legitimacy of the results, given the long delay. Two was the inability for those candidates who did well to get a bump because no results were in before newspaper deadlines or East Coast bedtimes. Finally, there were the predictable discussions about whether or not the Iowa caucuses have a future in the democratic process.

“I will say that this should be the end of this nonsense with Iowa and the caucuses in general,” CNN commentator Van Jones said.

Overall, CNN and MSNBC handled the coverage well, minus a few hiccups born from simply not knowing why results were delayed or when they would eventually come in.

It’s in these moments that main anchors — CNN’s Tapper, Blitzer and Anderson Cooper and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and Brian Williams — earn their money by keeping the conversation flowing.

Yet there were bizarre moments.


In the most surreal moment of the night, a precinct secretary, Shawn Sebastian, trying to report results, was on hold for more than an hour with the hotline. While doing a phone interview with Blitzer, the hotline finally picked up. But because Blitzer kept talking to the secretary, the woman on the hotline kept saying, “Hello … hello” and then hung up.

“They hung up on me,” Sebastian said with a haggard laugh. “They hung up on me. I gotta go and get back in line.”

Actually, that might not have been the strangest moment of the night. The most odd moments might have been candidate after candidate giving victory speeches despite having not won because, well, there were no results. Amy Klobuchar went first just after 11 p.m. Eastern. Smart. The networks had no choice but to air her 10-minute speech because they literally had nothing else to show.

Moments later, Joe Biden gave a speech, followed by Elizabeth Warren, then Bernie Sanders. As Fox News’ Bret Baier joked, “It’s like an Oprah victory speech night: you get a victory speech, you get a victory speech.”

Pete Buttigieg didn’t go on until 12:21 p.m. Eastern and he, too, sounded like he had won in a speech that seemed to go on forever. (Unofficially, I had it at about 21 minutes.)

It was then that even NPR had enough, signing off for the night. Who could blame them? Most Americans in the Eastern and Central time zones were off to bed.

The other networks kept going strong, including MSNBC/NBC, which reported at 12:46 a.m. that a conference call between the campaigns and the Iowa Democratic party turned heated and that the Democratic party “hung up on the campaigns” as the campaigns pressed the party on what was happening. It was about that time that CNN’s Jeff Zeleny reported that candidates were told to not expect any results until sometime later today.

It was a night that just didn’t seem to end. For a night with no results and nothing to really report, it was a night to remember. And watch.

Rush announces he has lung cancer

Radio personality Rush Limbaugh. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh announced Monday that he has advanced lung cancer. He told his audience that it was “one of the most difficult days in recent memory.” He said he will miss shows because of treatment.

“I thought about not telling anybody,” he said. “It is what it is. You know me, I’m the mayor of Realville, this has happened and my intention is to come here every day I can, and do this program as normally and competently and expertly as I do each and every day because that is the source of my greatest satisfaction professionally, personally.”

Limbaugh said he noticed a shortness of breath starting on Jan. 12. His syndicated show is aired on more than 600 stations and he recently signed a new deal that is believed to be at least four years. Limbaugh, who just turned 69, has been hosting his radio show for more than three decades and was inducted into the National Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 1998.


Another paper gone

Another local paper has gone down. The Montgomery Sentinel in Maryland shuttered Thursday after 165 years. As the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi wrote, the Sentinel “carried ads for slaves and chronicled the news from both the Civil War and the civil rights movement. It survived the Great Depression and muddled through the Great Recession.” But now it’s no more.

Publisher Lynn Kapiloff told Farhi, “I don’t know how to carry on at this point. I don’t know where the advertising would come from. The whole thing makes me so sad. I don’t know what the answer is.”

By the way, famed reporter Bob Woodward worked a year at the Sentinel before joining the Washington Post in 1971, shortly before he helped break the story of Watergate.

Washington Post under fire

A couple of media outlets are going after the Washington Post.

First, HuffPost’s Emily Peck had a pretty damning piece about sexism at the Post, quoting seven current and former staffers and one former contractor. All the sources were anonymous, telling Peck that the Post doesn’t value women the same way it does men.

The Post, through a spokesperson, said it didn’t agree with Peck’s narrative and it “has been equitable in its hiring, promotion and compensation for employees, in its security deployment on behalf of employees and in the high standards it applies to all stories.”

The story was sparked by the controversy involving a Post reporter (Felicia Sonmez) tweeting about the one-time sexual assault charge against Kobe Bryant and then facing threats online. According to Sonmez, she was told by an editor to leave her home for the night, whereas the Post once hired a private security guard to protect a male reporter who was threatened over another story.

Peck also quoted the sources talking about other instances when women weren’t treated the same as men.

Meanwhile, The Daily Beast’s Maxwell Tani writes that executive editor Marty Baron clashed with former Post reporter Wesley Lowery last year over tweets sent by Lowery. Neither the Post nor Lowery has commented. Perhaps not so coincidently, Lowery announced last week that he is leaving the Post for “60 in 6” — a “60 Minutes”-type show on CBS’s new streaming service.

Peck and Tani are respected reporters, which is why I included their stories here, although some might take issue with the heavy use of anonymous sources for the two pieces.

That’s some show of solidarity

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

Political journalists in the U.K. boycotted a news briefing at 10 Downing Street on Monday after one of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s aides banned select journalists from attending. In a massive sign of unity, journalists walked out when Lee Cain, Johnson’s most senior communications adviser, blocked several news outlets, including the Mirror, HuffPost and the Independent.

The Guardian’s Rowena Mason and Andrew Sparrow wrote, “The tactics from No 10 (the nickname of government headquarters) echo those of Trump in the US, who has been known to try to exclude journalists from reporting on his activities, and represents an escalation of Johnson’s tensions with the media, which have been increasing in recent weeks.”

Julia Hartley-Brewer, radio host on talkRADIO and columnist for The Telegraph, said, “It is totally unacceptable for No 10 to try to pick and choose which journalists can attend lobby briefings. All credit to the integrity and professionalism of those journalists who refused to accept the briefing when others were excluded. This stuff matters in a democracy.”

Media tidbits

  • Fox is reporting that the Super Bowl pregame show attracted about 21 million viewers. The show included Sean Hannity’s softball interview with President Donald Trump, which  attracted 10.3 million viewers. TV News HQ reports that is the biggest audience Hannity has ever had, surpassing the 7.1 million who watched him Jan. 8, 2019.

  • As far as the game, Fox reports an audience of 102 million for the Super Bowl. That’s across all platforms: Fox, Fox Deportes and streaming. It’s a 4% increase over last year’s Super Bowl.

  • The Atlantic is seeking entries for The Atlantic Media Michael Kelly Award, which recognizes writers and editors at U.S.-based newspapers, magazines and publications whose work exemplifies the fearless pursuit and expression of truth. The deadline is Feb. 17. You can find the details here. The award is named after Kelly, the former editor at large at The Atlantic who also worked at the New York Times, The New Republic and many other outlets. He was killed in 2003 while covering the war in Iraq for The Washington Post.

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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