Election Night Coverage Roundup

What was said on CNN, NPR, the BBC, the NYT, and elsewhere


CNN clearly wants to wow viewers with the whiz-bang: the “data wall,” the “election matrix,” the “sentiment analysis” of the “Twittersphere,” the exit poll 3-D doodads that from time to time crowd Ali Velshi out of the shot entirely. But what I am watching—really, watching—is Wolf Blitzer. Wandering the set. With pen and notepad. (A human foil, sort of, for all the high-tech stuff).

Early in the evening, Blitzer was on it. Ordering us to “stand by.” Announcing “we’re about to make projections,” and then…making those projections. Like this one, at 8 p.m.:

“CNN projects that the Democratic candidate, Chris Coons, will be the next U.S. Senator from the state of Delaware, beating Christine O’Donnell. Everyone remembers Christine O’Donnell, the candidate who said she was not a witch. She is not going to be a United States senator, at least for now, either.


Soon after 9 p.m., as Florida’s newest senator, Republican Marco Rubio, finished his victory speech, Blitzer weighed in effusively, calling Rubio “a very attractive and impressive young man who’s got a huge future.” (A personal projection?)

Also attractive to Blitzer: CNN’s Ali Velshi, as he fought to remain visible amid the floating exit poll data presented in colorful Lego-like stacks (the “little chiclets,” as Velshi called them). “I can’t even get behind that because it’s so big,” Velshi protested at one point, sidestepping a tall mound of “chiclets” apparently depicting that “89% of respondents say that the economy is not so good or poor.”

“You look good behind those walls,” Blitzer reassured Velshi, soon thereafter adding, “Stand by.”

Of Nikki Haley’s gubernatorial victory in South Carolina, Blitzer informed viewers that “her parents are Indians from India.”

Here’s Blitzer talking about Pennsylvania, just after 11p.m.: “It looks like this one will have to be decided the old-fashioned way, by the actual votes being counted.”

And, Blitzer on CNN’s “sentiment analysis” (read: reading tweets): “Twitter! What can we learn from the latest tweets that have been sent out?” We can learn, as John King explained at one point, after “a look at the conversation in the Twittersphere,” that “in “Rand Paul’s home state of Kentucky, 28%, a plurality, of the tweets about the Tea Party today were negative.” Huh.

Here’s another “sentiment” I found “in the Twittersphere:”

Election Night: Between Spitzer, Gergen & Carville, the CNN panel looks like the Cantina Scene from Star Wars

- Liz Cox Barrett

MSNBC and Fox News

So, my election night was spent flicking between MSNBC and Fox News; my surf along the Republican wave guided by the blustery Keith Olbermann and his panel of MSNBC big names for some returns, and by Fox’s Megyn Kelly and Bret Baier for others. As you might expect, it was like dinner with the Montagues and Capulets; two households alike in indignity with very different takes on the dishes being served.

Interestingly, it was MSNBC that proved the more exciting broadcast, if also the more abrasive and combative. With a navy blue theme for its well-produced graphics, and Chuck Todd sliding through maps and figures on what appeared to be an oversized (and uncooperative) iPad, MSNBC populated its panel with the channel’s popular prime timers and contributors: Olbermann in the middle, Chris Matthews and Rachel Maddow on either side, Eugene Robinson in the mix, and Lawrence O’Donnell on the end—“because your show is the latest.” (Ed Schultz was on duty in Nevada.) Unsurprisingly, everything came with a “Dems are doing better than expected spin,” and plenty of snark for some of the more colorful Republican candidates—Olbermann cut to Christine O’Donnell’s concession speech with a short, “Get your popcorn.” Was not the only snarky Olbermann comment of the evening, but to be fair, it was pretty entertaining. Pass the butter.

And the guests were predominantly MSNBC-friendly; witness the love-in with Missouri senator Claire McCaskill, Ed Rendell et al. But when the team did deign to talk to the enemy—err, wait, “opponents”—things got interesting. YouTube interesting. It began when Freedomworks’ Matt Kibbe got into the ring, via satellite, with Lawrence O’Donnell, who has a way of talking over and down to guests at the same time. Not that he shouldn’t have in this case; Kibbe was avoiding O’Donnell’s questions on the whether the debt ceiling should be raised so as to avoid putting the country in default. O’Donnell, frustrated, ended the fiery exchange with this: “It is a doomsday scenario if people like Rand Paul refuse to raise the debt ceiling.” Later, Eric Cantor got the O’Donnell treatment after a feisty back-and-forth with Maddow. “Are you going to raise the debt ceiling or are you going to let the country crash?” O’Donnell demanded. And then, “Who in your leadership is going to represent the Tea Party?” Cantor, grinning, had opened the interview: “It’s good to be on MSNBC on a night like this.”

But it was Matthews’s interview with victorious Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann (R) that is my so-far contender for the night’s most memorable moment. Bachmann, wide-eyed and wrapped in what looked like a coppery prom dress, refused to answer Matthews’s question about her suggestion that members of Congress should be investigated for being anti-American. A sign behind her, waved about by a supporter, read, “How’s the tingle Chris?” As off-camera laughs could be heard, and Bachmann evaded the question with rote Tea Party patriotisms, Matthews asked, “Has someone hypnotized you? …Has someone put you under a trance tonight?”* As the interview ended, the panel couldn’t contain their laughter.

Over at Fox, it might have been MSNBC circa 2008 with all the talk of “Obama” and an “historic” election. On a night of coverage anchored by Kelly and Baier, Fox portrayed every GOP victory as a repudiation of Obama, and the overall wave—Chris Wallace cooed early in the night that it could be “the biggest pickup since 1948”—as history-making. Conveniently, they didn’t cut to O’Donnell’s ready-for-SNL concession speech.

The central Fox panel was made up of Ailes’s tamer brood—Juan “Moneybags” Williams, Brit Hume, Joe Trippi—as well as Karl “this is the most historic election in the history of foreverdom” Rove, who, as you would expect, talked over anyone who suggested the results didn’t show a tidal wave spewed out of a volcano set off by an earthquake. It was grating, as was Kelly’s insistence on asking every guest what Obama might have to say at a scheduled press conference Wednesday, and Bill O’Reilly’s gloating about a Florida Democrat and O’Reilly-dubbed “pinhead” losing.

But overall, Fox’s coverage was civil—by Fox (and MSNBC) standards. The tone probably has something to do with the guests they brought in; Megyn Kelly isn’t exactly going to play hardball with “America’s Mayor” Rudy Giuliani or Reverend Huckabee. And a lot to do with the returns coming in. Nonetheless, it was a somewhat pleasant if dull counter to the Lean Forward folk. Even Sarah Palin, with her Twitter-trending new hairdo, presented a calmer and more reasonable front. Paired for the first time on TV with the only ever other female vice presidential candidate, Geraldine Ferraro, the pair played nicely together despite their political differences; Palin held her tongue when Ferraro said that the Tea Partiers who had been elected “have no idea how Congress works.” And they found common ground agreeing that “Neanderthals” (Palin’s word) needed to understand that “women can accomplish much” in politics. Just see the Momma Grizzlies. When it was noted that there might be one on the ballot in 2012 Kelly could barely contain her excitement, shrieking, “Whoever could you mean?”

Oh, you guys.

Personally, I’d take MSNBC’s blustery combativeness over that any day; at least the team at 30 Rock comes with an ounce of balance and skepticism, despite the obvious biases.

And when I say Fox’s coverage was civil, that is literally the nicest thing I could come up with. I dug deep. But having sat in front of my TV for six hours, flicking between the two rivals, I can honestly say I should have just waited for tomorrow’s Times while checking my Twitter. Because if I have to do this in 2012, I may go the way of a certain pair of star-crossed lovers. - Joel Meares


NPR is a great choice for following the election if you want your poll updates punctuated by stories about the BP settlement, the S&P 500, and a Modigliani painting now up for auction in Manhattan. I first tuned in last night around 7:30 p.m. eastern, when several All Things Considered hosts were falling all over themselves to announce Rand Paul’s win in Kentucky, and then Rob Portman’s win in Ohio shortly thereafter. The coverage was not set to start in earnest until 8:00, and so next they played a nine-minute pre-recorded story about a singer from Mallorca, which made me impatient.

But then the real coverage began. Hosts Melissa Block and Robert Siegel provided neutral, just-the-facts commentary from 8 p.m. eastern to midnight, with demographic statistics and state unemployment numbers always at hand. Analysis centered mainly on the economy and Americans’ mixed feelings about Obama’s health care bill. In a sharp contrast to television coverage, the candidates’ personalities, quirks and mini-scandals were completely absent on NPR; the hosts focused instead on policy and how Americans “feel.”

As a rule, NPR doesn’t tend to have bombastic analysts; the experts the hosts turned to throughout the night were either other NPR correspondents stationed in campaign parties across the country or non-controversial politicians in Washington like Sen. Dick Durbin. Local New York affiliate WNYC had a bit more colorful commentary, though: Governor David Paterson asked New Yorkers to be nicer to the next governor than they were to him, so that he could actually get something done in the legislature, and New York Times columnist Frank Rich talked about how the television shows Hung and Glee captured the zeitgeist of America in a recession, but not before saying that Governor-elect Andrew Cuomo “got an incredible break in this race, I mean, running against this lunatic [Carl Paladino].”

On NPR, Block and Siegel were consistently cautious about calling races that had not yet been officially decided, reminding each other “but we don’t know that yet” and jumping in to correct any guest analyst who dared to refer to a presumptive winner. Without the aid of a visual component like the color-coded maps television anchors love, every few minutes Block and Siegel had to list the races that had been decided and those that had not yet been decided. But they did it in a thorough and unobtrusive way, and it was easy enough to follow.

A slight drawback of the public radio format is that it doesn’t allow for quick changes of location, or spontaneous news alerts. Cable news anchors love to interrupt their colleagues’ analysis and break away with news alerts (“I’m going to have to stop you right there, because now we’re going LIVE to…”). But you won’t hear anything like that on public radio election coverage, which puts much more weight on narrative and analysis than conjecture or breaking news alerts. That is a product of the medium of radio itself: because it is only audio, jumping around to different locales and different voices interrupting each other would be too distracting to the listener. As a result, radio hosts must create an easy-to-follow story arc, each speaking carefully in turn, even when news is developing in real time.

So the staid analysis by NPR commentators did not break for the concession speech by Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, and they did not go live to John Boehner crying to his supporters [Update: Yes they did—I missed it]. WNYC host Brian Lehrer was still announcing an upcoming joint broadcast with the Hartford, Conn. affiliate to check in on the Senate race there, ten minutes after MSNBC had already called it for Blumenthal (which I saw posted immediately on Twitter). Some speeches got highlighted, but the NPR producers played them back in clips, after the fact.

In general, what the public radio coverage lacked in flash and spontaneity, it made up for with coherence and clarity. Listening to NPR and WNYC for the narrative flow of the evening while keeping an eye on Twitter for breaking news turned out to be a very pleasant and effective Election Night combination. - Lauren Kirchner


As you’d expect, watching the BBC’s coverage of last night’s elections presented some interesting moments of explanatory translation—cultural, political, or linguistic—for a British audience.

Take, for example, Katty Kay’s repeated questioning of the American tendency to support political scions:

“I know we talked about this already, and I don’t want to bang on about it, but tell me something, is this how American see themselves, as a country where there are political dynasties: the Bushes, the Clintons, the Cuomos, the Pauls, the Reids…” asked Kay. “I thought they threw us out for this kind of thing!”

Or, in a warning about on-screen graphics to the rest of the world, where red, understandably, is the color of the left party:

“In America, the reds are the Republicans and the blues are the Democrats, and I don’t want any of our viewers in the United Kingdom, where it’s the opposite, to get confused,” warned Kay. “We are a people divided by colors.”

And, in one of the playful asides that peppered the BBC’s presentation:

“For you following these elections, it all comes down to an array of electoral maths—or math as they like to say here,” chortled Matt Frei, anchoring besides Kay.

Kay and Frei, along with Emily Maitlis, who played a John King like role in front of the computerized board, seemed more than willing to crack jokes at the expense of the politicians. Perhaps it’s British wit, or a degree of across-the-pond insulation, but could you imagine a straight news anchor calling Palin “the Evita of the North,” as Frei did? Or Maitlis’s snarking of “Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin—that’s quite a name to get on a ballot paper?” Or Frei’s prediction that “were going to see an awful lot more of [John Boehner] and his tan?”

Completely absent from the BBC’s coverage? The commercial interruptions that the commercial networks usually weave in before each new set of polls close.

Not absent, but far more restrained, were the pundit pens. There were no desks cluttered with analysts waiting to be called on by teacher. There were of course, commentators, a mix of the tired (Larry Sabato) and some you’d be surprised to see pop up on a cable election night (James Fallows, Andrew Sullivan, Ryan Lizza).

The chief analyst and eminence grise was Ted Koppel, who not only offered his commentary—on how the wars were absent from the debate, on America’s structural financial challenges—but also contributed a sharp-toned tape piece on negative advertising and campaign finance, satirically suggesting that it was only a matter of time before the U.S. called off the voting and began selling $1,000 lots to candidates who could boost their chances through bulk purchases.

Koppel—whose British birth went unmentioned—also helped to interpret the habits of his British hosts for an American audience. (While anyone could stream it, and portions were broadcast on BBC America, most of the show was for a night owl home audience.)

“You have some viewers watching out there who might not know what those poppies you’re wearing are,” prodded Koppel, referring to the Remembrance Day pins affixed to every BBC staffer—those in the Washington studio and the contributing correspondents from Philadelphia to Las Vegas.

“Here in old Europe, it’s very important,” Frei responded, one of the few times the explaining was aimed America’s way. - Clint Hendler

The NYT and WaPo

I never understood why some friends of mine kept scorecards at baseball games rather than drinking beer or shouting obscenities. If those fine neurotics were keeping tabs on the election results last night, they were probably passing up the cable networks in favor of the multimedia smorgasbord at nytimes.com. Casual travelers to the New York Times homepage—the passive sort merely checking in from time to time—would have found the requisite electoral map slowly filling up with color, along with visual aids showing the steady progress of Republican gains in both the House and Senate. The data buffs, however, knew to head to the Times electoral results page. The amount of info made available there was truly astounding—I was even able to find results on the library acquisitions ballot measure in my native New Mexico.

Coverage-wise, the Times had the Tea Party on its mind throughout much of the night, with the front page banner frequently making reference to Tea Party candidate victories. The Times also did an overwhelmingly thorough job of analysis, with Nate Silver, Michael Shear, and the Media Decoder Blog all posting prodigiously throughout the night. The last post I saw came from Brian Stelter at 2:05 am, titled “Soon The Morning Shows Will Start.”

The Washington Post’s live results page is less impressive than that of the Times, though still quite strong considering that they were working with a much smaller Flash budget. The Post’s coverage, too, felt less full-bore than that of its rival. Post staff writers filed their usual strong reporting for the next day’s paper as the results came in, but a good deal of the paper’s Web election play-by-play was not prominently displayed on the front of the Politics section. Rather, much of the commentary was excised from the blogs and appeared via Twitter. Ezra Klein explained the rationale: “Most of the thoughts one has on election night are Twitter-appropriate one-liners rather than blog-appropriate analytical judgments…”

Lastly, of course, there was the reemergence of the NYT wordtrain—the stream of consciousness feature which allows readers to submit the “one word” that describes their “current state of mind.” In 2010, NYT readers are feeling, among other things, “terrified, anxious, and cynical.” As I stared at my laptop screen at 2 am and watched the dark words hover, I couldn’t help thinking that it was nice of the Times to not further break Democrats’ hearts by posting a link to the exuberant wordtrain of 2008, but then I noticed that they had.

The Post finds the electorate’s message “blunt” while the Times feels it’s “unclear.”- Michael Meyer

*Updated: This quotation originally included no ellipsis. An ellipsis has been added to reflect the fact that Matthews said the following between the two questions quoted: “Because no matter what I ask you, you give the same answer. Are you hypnotized?” Thank you to a reader for pointing out the error. —Joel Meares

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