With big elections being won all around them, the TV news networks were in a no-win situation on election night. The combination of post-2000 caution and the VNS meltdown meant, as more than one anchor said and most of the coverage reflected, they would rather be last than wrong. Unfortunately, watching anchors explain why they were not calling races or providing their usual vote dissections made for some often uninspiring coverage, particularly when the broadcast networks showed up only for an hour in the middle of the proceedings to talk about what they couldn't say.
Of course, the media's reticence was in part an attempt to avoid the hammering it got for calling too many races too soon the last time out. They should have expected to get hammered anyway. One op-ed page pundit characterized their caution as "promoting ignorance, timidity and deceit." Hardly, but we have to concede that it did at times border on timidity. We would rather chalk that up to the VNS snafu than to the result of its trip to the Washington woodshed two years ago, although we fear it was a little of both. We hardly need remind anyone that, after the networks were brazen enough to report what they knew and what they thought and tried to call one of the closest races in history, the news chiefs were paraded before a congressional committee.
Sticking with previous form, the broadcast networks confined their prime time coverage of the midterm elections to hour specials at 10 p.m. ET. So, if the fear factor you wanted to see was the look in Terry McAuliffe's eyes or the judging you wanted to do was of elections and not Amy, it was a cable-network night. Among those, the ratings winner was Fox News. Given the knock on Fox as a conservative network that wears its unbleeding heart on its sleeve, those expecting Republican cheerleading there would have been somewhat disappointed. Brit Hume and company were generally careful to avoid characterizing the tide of events or call races for Republicans, even as those colorful Ratherisms on CBS's hour were beginning to trend toward "game, set, and match" for the GOP. Perhaps Fox saw it as a high-profile opportunity to raise the level of its game to match its growing viewership.
One clear winner on the night was AP. With VNS on the sidelines, "AP is calling the race for?" become a familiar refrain, as some networks hedged their bets by reporting the winner, citing AP, then saying that their own news desks weren't ready to make the call.
The networks now have two years—plus an off-year election for practice—to be ready to make the calls again in 2004. By that time, the numbers crunching should be back up to speed, with political junkies wallowing in all those statistics and networks once again willing to ruffle a few political feathers or risk an egg facial or two by calling 'em as they see 'em.