Around 11 o’clock last night, as Brit Hume, grandfatherly reading glasses perched on the edge of his nose, finally conceded that the Democrats had won a majority in the House, he unleashed Fox News’ most dramatic visual embellishment of the evening. He flipped a switch and the front of the anchor desk, where Hume sat with the usual Fox talking heads, lit up with the words “Democrats Take The House.” Images of fireworks flashed on either side. The graphic was an extremely low-budget affair, but Hume glowed for a moment and then glowered at the camera, “Just so our viewers know, we would have turned on the sign and the fireworks if the other side had won too.”
The Fox talking heads looked depressed above those fireworks, ignited for the “other side,” and the grudging nature of their congratulations was indicative of what the network’s coverage looked like all night. In short, it appeared as if the knowledge that Republicans were going to lose, and lose big, forced Roger Ailes to take a pass on this one. There really isn’t any other way to explain what was a deeply uninspired and strangely disengaged atmosphere on the conservative news channel. They just didn’t seem to be that invested in it.
To switch from CNN to Fox last night was to travel in time between eras of television news. While CNN was dynamic all evening, with cameras moving, four knowledgeable commentators who were actually working the phones, and innovative, helpful graphics, the Fox broadcast looked more like 1986 than 2006. Static is the word to describe it.
The entire evening, the cameras did little more than stare at Hume and his cohorts: Bill Kristol, Fred Barnes, Juan Williams, and Mort Kondracke. Besides the mood, which was glum, there was general flatness to the commentary. The set itself seemed constricted and small, and Hume hardly ever patched in to live footage of the candidates giving concession or acceptance speeches — there was no coverage, for example, of the celebrations at the Democratic headquarters. It was almost as if little money or staff had been devoted to the evening. The only departures from Hume & Co. were to Chris Wallace, who interviewed Howard Dean and John McCain.
The network’s two supposed innovations seemed to actually embody the half-assed nature of the entire broadcast. One was a John Madden-esque marker given to Kristol, who drew confusing circles and squiggly lines on a screen with the various states and races, while Hume frequently urged him on with exclamations of “Cool!” The curious effort added really nothing in the way of analysis, but did make us dizzy. The other new element was Fox’s attempt to take into consideration the views of the youngsters in the blogosphere. Their answer? The indomitable Michelle Malkin. As we describe here, Malkin failed to translate what was happening in the blogosphere into anything useful. And, consistent with its other technical prowess on election night, Fox never really figured out how to clearly display the screen captures that Malkin kept referring to.
Even in areas where Fox had excelled in 2004, the network fell short. Fox distinguished itself in the last election by being the first to accurately predict that Ohio had gone to President Bush — effectively winning him the election — a full twenty minutes before the other networks. This was mostly a result of its exit poll analysis, largely conducted by Michael Barone. Well, Barone was on the team again this year, but something was off. Our unscientific survey found that Fox consistently lagged five to ten minutes behind CNN in calling races. Hume would surely chalk this up to a prudent concern for accuracy, but there seemed to be something more at work — denial, perhaps, the desire to slow down what was bound to be bad news.