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Lessons From Our Election Night Notebook

Backstage and on the air during the marathon coverage 11/07/2004 07:00:00 PM Eastern

Americans voted twice on Nov. 2: at the polls and with their TV sets. It was a banner night for NBC, with Tom Brokaw bringing home top ratings honors (see below). Among cable news organizations, Fox News Channel continued to show off its muscle. But enough about how the networks did in the ratings. On Election Night, we were interested in how they covered the story. So B&C sent a battalion of reporters into the field to monitor the action. In the election aftermath, we called some of the central media players for their post-election perspective. Here’s the download.

On Tuesday night, curious New Yorkers and tourists armed with camcorders packed NBC’s “Democracy Plaza,” giving Rockefeller Plaza the feel of one of the Today show’s summer rock concerts. One couple drove down from Upstate New York after seeing the plaza scene on TV. MSNBC’s outdoor studio with Chris Matthews and company was a prime attraction, and the crowd particularly liked the big foam fingers that read “MSNBC Democracy Plaza.” NBC choreographed the night like a Broadway production, splashing the Peacock logo and an American flag in lights on two nearby buildings. Maybe the ultimate news-as-spectacle effect was the view of the Rockefeller Center ice skating rink—displaying a U.S. map with states being painted red and blue as the night progressed—provided by the Goodyear blimp.

Cable and network election desks would have plenty of time to fill, but that didn’t mean the basic TV-news rules of keep-it-short-and-punchy were suspended. On the Fox News Channel, when former Democratic strategist Susan Estrich lapsed into filibuster mode, anchor Brit Hume tried repeatedly to get a syllable in edgewise. When he finally managed to reclaim the air for a moment, two voices in the control room yelled, “Cut her mike! Cut her mike!”

The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, appearing on CNN, ribbed Wolf Blitzer and others about the cable network’s extremely cautious approach to calling results: “I think you’ve all taken a Valium cooler or something.”

During the Democratic National Convention this summer, critics aimed a few brickbats at Fox News for not going live with the rousing speech by the little-known Illinois Senate candidate Barack Obama, which turned out to be a highlight of the gathering. On this night, the network dutifully started to cover Obama’s victory speech after he hammered GOP sacrificial lamb Alan Keyes, but Fox soon fled the scene when the winner disappeared into a thicket of tedious thank-yous instead of capitalizing on his national TV exposure. “He blew it, he blew it,” shouted Vice President of Production Bill Shine. “Forget the vid.”

Many producers vowed not even to look at what the competition was doing, in order to avoid even giving the appearance of scrambling to call states. But at CNN, producers and others whispered about what other networks were reporting—information that was popping up on their Blackberries, thanks to well-meaning friends. “I’m personally not very cautious, but the network is really cautious,” said Crossfire co-host Tucker Carlson, who was at the Time Warner Center.

In the Fox control room, a bank of monitors displayed a bullpen of reporters and analysts and pundits, patiently waiting in far-flung locales for their moment of on-air glory. Fox News correspondent Jeff Goldblatt may have been the night’s longest-suffering benchwarmer. Hume repeatedly was on the verge of going to Goldblatt, who was stationed at the Board of Elections in Cleveland—seemingly a choice reporting location as Ohio took center-stage in the electoral-vote count. “I’ve got Goldblatt, I’ve got Goldblatt,” senior producer Bob Males blurted periodically. But the correspondent got bumped over and over again. He finally made to air at 1:50 a.m. ET.

At CBS News, 300 staffers hunkered down for a long night when the outline of the election became clear. Just before midnight, CBS News President Andrew Heyward muttered, “We’re still waiting for the key states to fall.” CBS had planned to stay live until at least 2 a.m., but Dan Rather didn’t leave the air until 6:00, when he handed off to The Early Show.

ABC’s Peter Jennings, discussing Kerry’s diminishing prospects in Ohio, bristled when he got a signal to break away. “I’m very grateful for the support we get in the news division, but we seem to have a lot of commercials,” he said, smiling faintly.

CNN’s legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin and the team of lawyers he had assembled for the evening sat armed with election law from each of the 50 states, ready to address legal battles that never arose. Like the thousands of lawyers assembled by both parties, they could have stayed home and watched it on TV.

One of the challenges of non-stop news coverage is the lack of, um, personal time. Fox News correspondent Carl Cameron faithfully remained for hours at his post at the site of Kerry’s rally in Boston. But at 1:40 a.m., he needed a break. “Can Carl go to the men’s room?” producer Males called across the crowded control room to Marty Ryan, executive producer for political coverage. No answer. Males made the command decision: “I’m sending Carl to the men’s room.” Cameron flashed a thumbs-up and scooted off.

How hot was it? Dan Rather, breaking out his repertoire of colloquialisms that are then later trumpeted by the CBS publicity department as “Danisms,” described the presidential contest in Florida as “hotter than a Times Square Rolex,” while the race in Iowa was “hot enough to peel the paint off houses.” The race in general, he said, was “hotter than the Devil’s anvil.”

On Nov. 3, NBC News President Neal Shapiro reflected on how his team performed. “Everyone called things at a different pace and made their own judgments,” he said. “Nobody suggests that every newscast or newspaper should look exactly the same. So why should every election be reported the same by every network?”

CBS News’ White House correspondent John Roberts was most surprised by “the emergence of moral issues as the top concern” for voters. “It speaks to the effectiveness of Karl Rove’s plan to make the moral issues like gay marriage and abortion wedge issues.”

Dan Merckle, ABC News Decision Desk director, cautioned that criticism of the day’s exit polling may be overblown. “We’ll have to finish our evaluation, but my sense is that the results are probably in the realm of what we’ve had in years past,” he says. The difference? In the past, early numbers didn’t leaked out as much. And with the Internet and blogs providing plenty of outlets to the public, there’s a greater possibility of misinterpretation, wrong numbers or even bogus information getting out there. “An exit poll in general is just an estimate, and people who are trained to analyze the data take into account the different possibilities and don’t get overly excited about things that other people take to the bank.”

Viewers gave Brokaw a nice going-away present. As he headed up the network’s election coverage for the last time, NBC topped the ratings for the night, pulling in 15.2 million viewers in prime time (cable sister MSNBC attracted another 2.8 million, according to Nielsen data). Fox News Channel (FNC), following up on its stellar numbers from the Republican National Convention, won the cable news war on Election Night and even started breathing down Rather’s neck at CBS. Fox drew 8 million viewers, versus CBS’ 9.5 million (third among broadcasters, behind ABC). If you factor in Fox Broadcasting’s prime time coverage, which drew 4.5 million, Rupert Murdoch’s army was marching on Jennings, too. The Foxes drew a combined 12.5 million, while ABC was seen by 13.2 million. Others pegged respectable results. CNN’s 6.2 million viewers made the network more competitive than usual with rival Fox. While other Spanish-language outfits pulled in just six-figure numbers, Univision attracted a healthy 2.8 million viewers.

Despite the fact that Kerry had not yet conceded and the outcome of the election technically remained in doubt, by 1 p.m. ET Wednesday, CBS, ABC and NBC had all resumed regularly scheduled soap-opera programming. Disappointing political junkies is one thing, but networks know that angering soap opera fans is suicidal.

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