Air Apparent, Part Two

Live TV and the virtues of restraint

Dan Rather is calm. Dan Rather is collected. Dan Rather is cautious. And he is not—repeat, not—ready to call Ohio for Barack Obama.

Sure, Obama currently holds a 55 percent lead in the state to John McCain’s 43 percent. And, sure, the TV screen whose images Rather is narrating may feature a blue-and-red graphic reporting that gap. And, sure, other networks have already placed Ohio in the Democrat’s column. But this is Dan Rather. And this is his “dance of democracy.” And. He. Will. Not. Call. It. (Until. He. Is. Sure.)

“Two of the networks are calling Ohio for Obama,” Rather informs his audience—those home viewers watching the special live broadcast of Dan Rather Reports on HDNet, and the small audience watching his broadcast in person at the small sound stage in DC’s Newseum—in response to which several members of the live viewers draw their breaths (Ohio! That would be huge!). “But we,” Rather continues—by which he means himself and his producers, using projections from the AP—”aren’t there yet.”

In response to which: deflated breaths. And a few muffled groans.

“We’re saying to you,” Rather continues, either not hearing the groans or electing to ignore them, “that it may indeed go that way. But we’re not yet prepared to say which way Ohio is going to go.”

Which is greeted with more groans. Because it’s 9:30, and we’ve been sitting in studio-audience silence for two and a half hours, and History May Be Made Any Minute Now—if, indeed, History Hasn’t Already Been Made—and Rather has been engaging in this manner of math-be-damned teasing all evening. (New Hampshire, 54 percent Obama to 45 percent McCain: we’re playing it safe and cautious here, folks; Pennsylvania, 55 percent Obama to 44 McCain: If—and I’m going to italicize, all-caps, underscore that word—Pennsylvania goes to Obama…; New Mexico, 57 percent Obama to 42 McCain: There’s one of the networks that’s jumped out to say that New Mexico has gone for Obama, but we’re not prepared to say that yet. Et cetera.) There’s a thin line, after all, between caution and delusion.

And yet Rather manages—even from the center of his anchor’s desk, even flanked on both sides by four feisty politicos—to radiate calmness. The same preternatural calmness he has radiated on air for, oh, about fifty years. Indeed, Rather moves with a slowness that you sense comes not from his age, nor from his experience, but from some kind of communion between himself and the camera trained on him.

Rather, in other words, presides. And that’s true not only on election night, but also during broadcasts of Dan Rather Reports, the two-year-old newsmagazine he anchors and reports on the cable channel HDNet. Rather seems to see television not just for what it is, but also for what it could be—the Texas-twanged Superego to other anchors’ Ids. While other networks, on election night, are featuring cacaphonic commentary and whizzing, glowing graphics, Rather perches behind a desk, with a neat sheaf of papers arranged before him. He keeps a pen in his hand. His cohost of sorts is Nate Silver, the numbers guru who emerged as one of the principal polling experts of the campaign. And his guests, who cycle in and out of the four chairs surrounding him, like planets circling in and out of his orbit, are political strategists (Donald Fowler, Jr., Todd Harris, and Terry Nelson), journalists (Dahlia Lithwick, George LeMieux), and political psychologist Drew Westin. None is a “big name,” per se, along the lines of CNN’s crew of “partisans” and “commentators”—but each is excessively knowledgeable, unfailingly thoughtful, and, importantly, open to debate. Their composite commodity is smarts. In that sense, come to think of it, they all seem to preside.

Partly that’s because Rather’s calmness seems to be infectious. Even though the HDNet broadcast is live—it’s election night, what else could it be?—it has the calm demeanor of a regular episode of Dan Rather Reports. It lacks the tension-building urgency so often seen on other cable channels—BREAKING NEWS! STAY TUNED!—and instead focuses on accurate reporting and smart analysis.

It’s an approach other TV news channels might learn from, particularly when it comes to live broadcasts. In its 2008 State of the News Media report, the Project for Excellence in Journalism broke down hours of cable news coverage on offer, emphasis mine:

Overall, of the 885 hours studied, 496 (56% of the time) were unedited and unrehearsed, with in interviews (usually by anchors) or live stand-ups by correspondents. That is even higher than we identified in past years. The medium, as we have noted in earlier years, “has all but abandoned what was once the primary element of television news, the written and edited story.”

About half as much time, 30%, on the cable programs studied was made up of correspondent packages. Compare that to network nightly newscasts, in which 82% of time is taken up by such packages, or even morning news, where half of the time studied made up of edited packages.

But the notion that cable takes you live to watch events for yourself is in many ways overstated. In all, only 3% of the time covered live events such as press conferences. (About 1% was spent on banter between anchors, weather and other chat.) This compares with 6% in live events the last time we examined the structure of cable news, in 2004.

The emphasis on live thus cannot be explained by the desire to go continually for substantial periods of time to show viewers live events. Rather, the nature of time on cable news appears to be more on creating the impression that things are being reported as they happen. Producing programs in a live, unedited and essentially extemporaneous model is also cheaper.

In other words, much of the tension-making urgency that has become a standing feature—not to mention a cliche—of cable news coverage is inaccurate at best, fabricated at worst. As Rather and his team prove, when it comes to TV, live need not equal adrenaline fueled. Even live reporting, when TV takes it on—and, as I’ve argued, I think live, breaking-news reporting is much better suited to the Web—can be done in a way that is calm and, in that, authoritative.

And, in that, deferential to the occasion—in this case, an historic election night. Because caution may not be what we crave in the moment—indeed, the words “crave” and “caution” rarely mesh well—but, in the end, the restraining factor (or: the editorial oversight) serves audiences. It pays deference paid to the occasion—and to the facts that will make it. “You want to be cautious,” Rather told me, “because you want to be right.”

It’s a simple maxim, to be sure, but one we miss all too often in the whizz-bang, wham-bam world of TV news. (There was nothing restrained about Jessica Yell-o-gram.) Caution—slowness, restraint, judgment—matter. And live television in particular, Rather says, combined with its large audiences, mean that anchors and other on-air commentators have a particular duty toward restraint. Rather used the world “responsibility” repeatedly during our conversation, along with “respectful” and, yes, “cautious.” On election night, anyway, restraint—especially under the try-men’s-souls impulse that is the desire to blurt out “It’s gonna be Obama!”—is a kind of badge of honor. Caution equals authority. One of the non-folsky aphorisms Rather enjoys quoting is Teddy White’s: “Journalists should concentrate on what has happened and what is happening and not delve into what may happen.”

So, when it comes to Ohio, “we’re cautious with no apology,” Rather tells his audience. He’ll later emphasize—and reiterate the sentiment several times—that “this isn’t just a case of trying to keep you in front of the television.” And he’ll wait until eleven o’clock on the dot—the moment the polls close in California, the moment the AP makes its call—to announce that Obama has won the presidency.

“Quite frankly, the call—that is, ‘Okay, we put everything together’—could have been made even earlier,” Rather told me. But: Caution.

Blogs, in comparison, generally exhibit no such discipline—nor are they, really, under any pressure to exhibit it. Again: speed versus restraint. Nate Silver called the election for Obama—via a posting on FiveThirtyEight, which he typed on his computer in one of the Newseum studio’s small anterooms—at 9:38 p.m. “I actually think it would have been a bit earlier,” Silver told me of the Obama call, “except that our Web site was having problems from getting so much traffic.”

Caution factors into Silver’s equation, too—”after 2000, we had every reason to be very, very careful,” he says—”but it was clear to me pretty early on that McCain’s path was very narrow. And certainly once Ohio got called, you could do the math and figure out that the only way McCain would win was if he won a state like Oregon or something—a state he’d basically not campaigned in. And that seemed very unlikely: States don’t usually reward candidates who ignore them. So, even before I called it, it looked safe to me for Obama.”

That call looked safe to a lot of people. Many other bloggers, trusting in numbers and California’s blueness, had called the election before ten o’clock that night. In other words, they broke news. And they scooped the televised broadcasts.

But, then, bloggers don’t make A Moment—TV does. And A Moment, in the end, was what audiences were looking for that night. It’s what they’re looking for, in fact, most nights. As Brooke Gladstone, assessing election night on On the Media, put it,

When the ball drops in Times Square on New Year’s Eve, people watch it everywhere. It is the definitive marker, the moment the New Year begins. So even though the death of network news is often proclaimed, it’s still got its mojo because Tuesday’s moment wasn’t really about who had access to polling data. All of us had the answer before 11.

What TV had, and what only TV has, is the power to create the moment everyone could share.

There it is. For all the ink spilled in analyzing the social power of the Internet—and the Web certainly has that power—television is still a striking platform for community. It’s a platform for iconic moments, be they of historic import or simple, human serendipity.

The moment everyone could share.

If only TV could see its own strength.

For part one, click here.

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.