Paul Friedman, executive producer of ABC World News Tonight, tells the story of one of his subordinates who recently likened himself to "the missing kid on the milk carton. He went home one day, and his kid asked him, 'Who are you?'"
Indeed, hundreds of television journalists must have felt that way, not just during the past few weeks but over the previous 18 months that constituted the latest presidential election campaign. Just when they thought they'd get a break, after Nov. 7, it turned out they had to work harder than ever, as it took five weeks to sort out who would become the next president of the United States.
It was a remarkable story with unpredictable twists and turns, as well as the remarkable sight, last Tuesday, of on-air correspondents struggling mightily to figure out just what
the Supreme Court had ruled. Vice President Gore's communications director, Mark Fabiani, told
The New York Times
that his boss surfed the news specials and never understood until he heard ABC correspondent Terry Moran's explanation.
Mainly, there was confusion. CBS News correspondent Bob Schieffer tried deciphering the court documents and, on the air, asked for anchor Dan Rather's theory. "The honest answer for my own part, Bob, is, I have no idea," Rather responded. "From what we know-if we must level with the viewers-there's a lot we don't know."
The post-Election Day impasse ended as weirdly as it began. In this long, improbable election season, MSNBC correspondent Chris Jansing, for example, set out from New York to cover Al Gore's final 48-hour sprint to the finish, figuring it would be a five-day excursion, maybe 10 days at the outside. But, from the confusion of election night in Nashville, she was immediately dispatched to the ensuing chaos of the recount in Tallahassee.
Jansing recalls telling her producer, "This could get complicated. We could be down there for a week." Her trip ultimately proved to be a 46-day odyssey, with attendant hardships and rewards. On Thanksgiving Day, her crew presented her with a Christmas tree intended to lift her spirits. "It just depressed me," she says.
But then, there were high moments: the conversations with MSNBC viewers who felt as if they knew her, having seen her through all those hours on-air. And there was the "electricity" of the moments when Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris certified Bush as the winner in Florida.
"I came out of this feeling that I had realized what I went into this business for: to witness history, to be in the middle of history and to give people information about something that made a difference," Jansing explains.
Even so, it was a surreal time for TV news, and for the nation for that matter. CBS News President Andrew Heyward likened Tuesday's coverage to letting viewers "see the back of the factory where the sausage is made."
There were "certainly some awkward moments for everyone," he says, "but, at the same time, people got to see news as it was being made. There were some very seasoned reporters and very seasoned lawyers struggling live with a very complicated Supreme Court decision and trying to read it, make sense of it and explain it properly to an audience of millions on the fly." Friedman calls the post-election story "the most intellectually challenging. It's hard stuff to understand: first the exit-polling problems and the vote-counting problems, and then the court arguments back and forth and finally deciphering the Supreme Court opinions."
While cable provided thorough and exhaustive coverage and unending analysis, it was to the major networks that most of the nation turned to keep up with the sometimes-blistering pace of new developments.
ABC calculates that it aired 60 special reports on the election between Nov. 8 and the two speeches last Wednesday totaling fifteen-and-a-half hours; other broadcast networks say their coverage was in that range, too.
One network chose to miss one big moment: When Florida Secretary of State Harris certified the state's vote, NBC didn't break away from its showing of Titanic. (And last week, 15 minutes or so after Gore's concession speech, CBS abandoned Dan Rather to air an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond, and ABC delivered The Drew Carey Show.)
Heyward argues that, overall, "it was a very proud chapter for the network news divisions and a very proud chapter for their parent companies. The networks really stepped up and spent millions of dollars and huge amounts of resources to cover this properly."
It's estimated that the Big Four networks combined spent about $20 million extra to cover the story between Election Day and last week. (But, as one executive notes, most of that money would have been spent covering other stories anyway.) In addition, another $10 million in advertising was probably pre-empted for special coverage, according to one network executive's estimate.
Was it worth it? As the story's denouement emerged last Wednesday night, the Nielsen ratings show that 81%, or 54 million, of the 66 million viewers tuning in were watching one of the Big Four networks. That broke out roughly as follows: 20 million viewers for ABC, 18 million for NBC, 10 million for CBS and 6 million for Fox.
On the cable channels, CNN attracted 5.3 million viewers for the Gore speech, while Fox attracted 3.9 million viewers and MSNBC drew 3.2 million viewers. Throughout the election fracas, CNN provided 20 hours of coverage a day. In total, Fox News offered 860 hours, and MSNBC said it did more than 800 hours.
Meanwhile, all the networks and VNS continue to investigate what went wrong with the missed projections on election night. But in hindsight, says Friedman, given the problems with vote tallies in Florida, "there is probably no computer model in the world that could have dealt with that, given what we've found out since then."
Last week, network news managers were finally beginning to schedule leaves for their battle-fatigued troopers. But nobody gets too long a long a break because, while the networks are packing their tents in Tallahassee, they're sending reinforcements to Washington, Austin and other points to cover the transition and the inauguration.