Trying to Pass Their Midterms
Amidst anti-incumbent fervor and silly sound bites, nets unveil plans as they try to stay focused on the issues
By Marisa Guthrie -- Broadcasting & Cable, 10/18/2010 12:01:00 AM
Headless bodies in border-town deserts and accusations of occult affiliations; no, these are not plot points from an upcoming Halloween movie marathon. Strangely—or perhaps not—it is fodder from the midterm elections. And for national news organizations tasked with sifting through the considerable chafe for kernels of clarity, it has become a manifest task.
“None of us has ever seen an election like this,” says David Bohrman, senior VP of programming and Washington bureau chief at CNN. And Bohrman has been covering elections for 30 years.
It’s not just the cast of characters: Arizona gubernatorial incumbent Jan Brewer, who claimed border protections are so lax that law enforcement fi nds “beheaded” bodies—collateral damage of the Mexican drug wars; or Delaware Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell’s long-ago talk-show appearance (on Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect, of all places) during which she admitted that she dabbled in witchcraft but “never joined a coven.”
The seemingly insatiable appetite of a 24/7 political blogosphere and the eternal nature of the web, where no video or audio utterance stays buried, is colliding with the antiincumbent fever of a recession-battered electorate to produce a super-sized “silly season.”
“Almost every day, there is a story about somebody saying something outrageous or making some outrageous claim,” observes Sean McManus, president of CBS News and CBS Sports. “I think you do have to bring yourself back from the drama of some of the peripheral stuff that’s going on and really focus on the issues.”
Mark Lukasiewicz, VP of digital media at NBC News and executive producer of the network’s election-night coverage, chalks up the sticky sound bites to the relative inexperience of many of the candidates.
“We know there’s a learning curve for candidates,” says Lukasiewicz. These political newbies, he adds, may not realize that “every utterance is public and is going to be dissected and analyzed.”
Nevertheless, producers and correspondents have been diligently presenting the issues to a public swamped with information, say executives. Network Websites are rich with stateby- state election scorecards. News programs have diligently chronicled the defining issues in the midterm race (it’s the economy, stupid). And information is available on all manner of broadband and mobile platforms.
It is, says Jon Banner, executive producer of ABC’s World News With Diane Sawyer, “an effort to reach into every nook and cranny, to reach as many people as we possibly can.”
What You’ll See on Nov. 2
Election-night coverage will be a culmination of that wild and wooly campaign trail. There will be wall-to-wall coverage on cable networks, more wonky touch-screen district dissection and plenty of multi-platform opportunities to witness what polls predict will be a bloody night for incumbents in general, and the Democrats in particular.
CNN will have its usual rows of political pundits. And it will also unveil a new “magic wall” that Bohrman describes as “an order of magnitude larger” than the 2008 version.
“We’re taking the capabilities of the magic wall and quadrupling it,” Bohrman says, putting chief national correspondent John King in a “real-time data matrix.” “We’ve figured out a way to harness a fair portion of the enormous amount of information that flows into our system to tell the story as it plays out on election night.”
Chuck Todd, NBC’s chief White House correspondent and resident numbers-cruncher, also will have a more robust real-time data touch screen. It is, of course, a long way from Tim Russert’s famous whiteboard of the 2000 election.
But, adds Lukasiewicz, “We don’t create these gadgets simply for the sake of having a cool device. We’ve been very focused on creating tools that actually help our journalists communicate a point to the audience.”
Todd will appear throughout the night on MSNBC’s coverage, which will be helmed by Keith Olbermann, Chris Matthews and Rachel Maddow, and on NBC News for its two hours of primetime coverage (9-11 p.m.) led by Brian Williams and David Gregory.
Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper will lead the CNN political team. Bret Baier and Megyn Kelly will helm coverage at Fox News, according to the network. Shepard Smith will anchor Fox Broadcasting's coverage, that will feature a panel including Chris Wallace. Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos will lead live coverage on ABC News from 9:30- 11 p.m. And Katie Couric and Bob Schieffer will quarterback at CBS News, which will be live from 10-11 p.m.
Without cable networks, both ABC and CBS will extend live coverage to the Web; CBS News will have an election-night edition of Webcast Washington Unplugged at 9 p.m.; ABC News will begin live streaming electionnight coverage at 8 p.m. on ABCNews.com, Facebook and on the ABC News iPad app.
For news organizations, election night offers an opportunity to showcase expertise— not to mention reams of political minutiae gathered over ever-longer campaign seasons. But the overwhelming anti-incumbent wave led by the conservative-backed Tea Party movement may offer a referendum not just on the success or failure of the Obama administration to date, but also on the so-called mainstream media, so often accused of having a foot ! rmly planted on one side of the aisle.
“I think we have all tried to be as fair and rational as we possibly can be,” says McManus. “I’m sure there are opinions about that. But I’ll let viewers be the judge of how successful we’ve been in that effort.”
E-mail comments to email@example.com and follow her on Twitter: @MarisaGuthrie
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