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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 10/18/2010 12:01:00 AM Eastern

Corrected Nov. 1 to reflect Fox News' coverage
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
mguthrie@nbmedia.com
and follow her on Twitter: @MarisaGuthrie

 

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