Critics' Conversation: Election Night Coverage Struggled to Capture the Gravity of the Moment

CNN's John King
Courtesy of CNN

DANIEL FIENBERG: OK, Inkoo. We both watched a lot of election night coverage last night and I'm of two minds, so I want to offer you this pair of conflicting proposals to work with.

Mind #1: This year, there was a fundamental shift in how votes were cast, mandating a fundamental shift in how votes were tabulated, but there were no corresponding fundamental shifts in how the pageantry of the election was televised. Networks said, over and over, that this was an election unlike any other. But in effectively treating it like any other election, they did the citizenry a grave disservice and stoked the chaos we've been witnessing on Wednesday morning and may continue to witness for days or weeks or months to come.

Mind #2: This year was sheer chaos, with the voting process just becoming part of that chaos, and we needed the chaos of election night not just to mirror what was happening elsewhere, but to establish almost a chain of evidence. If there had been no back-and-forth, infuriating coverage on Tuesday night, and if you'd just woken up on Wednesday morning to the numbers we're looking at now, you wouldn't know how we got there. But there's a 100 percent guarantee that our president would still be throwing the hissy fit to end all hissy fits on TV, alleging the same fraud — only nobody would have any sense of timeline or machination. It would just be a proverbial smoke-filled-room.

Democrats and Republicans alike should be grateful that we know how each step of the process and computation went, so no matter which side you want to argue from, you know where in the timeline you need to interrogate or appeal. Or, put a different way, it was an awful year and of course the election night coverage felt awful, but that's just a reflection — a symptom and not a cause. Huzzah for chaos!

Do either of those minds speak to you?

INKOO KANG: I was definitely of Mind #1 yesterday, Dan. It was bizarre and off-putting last night — after the strangeness of the last four years and 2020 in particular and this election season most of all — to see newscasters treat this like the usual horse race.

I’ll be honest: Election nights tend to bring out the worst in TV news, which is why I avoid day-of television coverage as much as I can. What I saw last night was pretty much what we see every four years: data that doesn’t quite translate to information (“With 3 percent of precincts reporting, the count is …”), pointless hypothetical scenarios and time-filling pantomimes of authority interspersed with the omnipresent phrase “too early to call.”

Perhaps there’s someone out there who was comforted by this show of “normalcy,” but it just recalled for me the first two years of the Trump presidency, when the mainstream news institutions took way too long to adjust to the stream of lies and media manipulation coming out of the White House. The cognitive dissonance of being told for weeks that we shouldn’t expect results on Election Day and watching these journalists largely ignore or sidestep that reality was too much.

The networks’ usual numbers-only treatment also repelled me because it projected a lack of stakes, as if Biden v. Trump was just another sports match and not a deciding factor in the future of American democracy. All the talk of “This random county is like this” and “This group could be key to x’s victory in y” conveyed a weightlessness to the election that no one I know feels. Of course, election night coverage isn’t traditionally analytical or editorial about the issues, but there must be some sort of happy medium between substance and the horse race.

DF: There was no question that networks, especially the cable networks, made the decision to prioritize numbers over punditry last night, which meant an almost unfathomable amount of John King and the Magic Wall on CNN; of Steve Kornacki and his rolled-up sleeves on MSNBC; of Bill Hemmer and his desperate attempt to give some substance between Tucker Carlson or Laura Ingraham cameos on Fox News.

But even then, with an attempted concentration on micro substance, I'd say we lost any feeling of macro substance. As King remained glued to the Magic Wall for hours at a stretch, constantly repeating over and over that every number he was giving was borderline hypothetical, that the number of known unknowns — to use the Rumsfeldian parlance — was too many to count, I felt like there was a loss of any recognition of what the votes meant. To me, CNN lost track of House and Senate races early and maybe that was because so many of the races we thought were going to be competitive — Harrison vs. Graham, McGrath vs. McConnell, etc. — were ultimately big wins for the incumbents. But the impact was was one of losing the bigger picture of what the election actually meant in favor of fixating on how the election was operating. And maybe the story of this election really was the way that democracy attempted to function in a moment of unparalleled adversity?

I'm not sure how many actual human beings felt that way, though. Actual human beings knew what was at stake in every race, and maybe more of that should have been conveyed. Would that have been conveyed more or better, though, if the cable networks had spent more time with panels of alleged experts shouting at each other? I doubt it.

Flimsy consideration of how viewers at home were feeling carried over to the knee-jerk excitement from each of the networks. If you took a shot every time King talked about his excitement or why elections were so much fun, much less every time Wolf Blitzer practically exploded at a minuscule shift in the early Florida data tally, you would not have made it to midnight ET. And then you might have woken up to Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan in flux, though since that was what we always anticipated, you might have found it completely normal and not chaotic at all.

How wide a swathe did you cover in your viewership last night? Were you flitting around like a hummingbird or did you stick to one or two sources to pollinate your brain flowers?

IK: I changed the channels — by which I mean I toggled between tabs, because I’m a millennial — between CNN, MSNBC, Fox News and the broadcast networks all night. I saw a brief Tucker Carlson rant about how the media is “moving toward zero credibility,” which was both hilarious coming from Fox and … kinda captured the overall mood of progressives. The polls had told us for weeks to expect a landslide Biden victory and held open the possibility that some demographically transitioning red states, like Texas and Georgia, might flip blue. As I write this, the election will likely go to Biden, but it’s turning out to be a nail-biter, and the most we can probably wish for at this point is a squeaker of a Democratic win. Which is certainly a delicious “twist” for TV journalists to narrativize, but as I said before, too depressing to think of as a “fun” or “interesting” development.

Other than the apparent budget differences between the sets, though, I didn’t see much daylight among the networks in the kind of coverage they were doing last night. Sure, Carlson was hoping for a different outcome from Rachel Maddow but, at least from my vantage point, they all seemed to adopt the reflexive, breathless horse-race approach that we’ve been deploring.

DF: I thought Tucker — sorry, but I'm gonna call him by his first name, though I'll at lease pronounce it correctly — was actually hilarious last night, trying desperately to play the role of nonpartisan political observer, while pointing out how every trend reflected how out of touch the media and the Democratic establishment was with America. Occasionally he was right, of course. I'm not one of those "Polls are evil and need to be eradicated forever!" people, but it's hard not to feel that a disconnect has formed somewhere between the pollsters, the people being polled and the media interpreting the polls; whatever mistakes were made four years ago or 20 years ago have clearly only partially been corrected.

To me, I can see difference in expertise. Hemmer, as hard as he tries, is not gifted with the quickly interpreted sense of precedent or the statistical acumen that make King or Kornacki objects of cult worship every election cycle. But yeah, there was a lot of sameness on Tuesday night as everybody made a concerted effort to performatively exhibit restraint, without relinquishing the structure that networks have followed on election nights for decades. That meant viewers were forced to salivate in Pavlovian form every time an anchor announced a "Key Race Alert!" while nearly all of those "Key Race Alerts!" were to alert viewers that key races were too close to call.

Viewers and general democracy were probably the main victims here, but it was funny watching Stephen Colbert do his election comedy special on Showtime without any of the electoral structure he had four years ago when his acknowledgment of Trump's victory in real-time became perhaps the indelible moment of his acclaimed career. Instead, on Tuesday, with no prospect of a verdict to react to, or even a steady string of state results, Colbert did an almost dada version of a reactive comedy show with nothing to react to. Filming from his "bunker" with only his wife, plied with wine, in attendance, Colbert's special this time around was post-modern on a level Wayne & Garth, Tom Green or Eric Andre might appreciate. I laughed out loud several times, especially at the 20-person panel of Zoom guests who took so long to introduce there was no time for them to offer commentary. But in a year in which information was at a premium, Colbert accepted that he wouldn't be able to be informative and steered into over an hour of good-natured, possibly drunken perplexity.

And maybe that's the state in which we all would be well-served to spend the next days or weeks or two months or four years. It might cause us to erase any of the lessons we should have learned from this election. But it might also ease the pain.