As regular readers may know, I currently write CJR’s daily newsletter from the UK, where I’m from. (I studied and lived in the US in between times; given my 7am Eastern deadline, it’s great to now have the time difference.) While I follow CNN closely, for work purposes, it’s unusual for my friends to do likewise. This week has been an exception; in fact, it feels, from scrolling down Twitter at least, as if every politics nerd in the UK is hooked on the network, as the quadrennial Great British American Election Night Watch-along—wings, “chips,” miniature American flags, Budweiser—has turned into a sleep-deprived, multiday marathon.
Brits have fallen in love with John King, marveling at his stamina and Magic Wall. (Steve who?) Iain Martin, a columnist with The Times of London, threatened to establish a UK John King Fan Club; others demanded that King be flown in to cover elections here. Alastair Campbell, the spin doctor for former prime minister Tony Blair, praised CNN’s pundits as “articulate, clear, well-informed” (compared with the current prime minister, Boris Johnson, at any rate). The network’s coverage here has been interspersed with commercials for the same handful of CNN International shows, playing over and over again: Amanpour; First Move, with Julia Chatterley; Connect the World, with Becky Anderson; and Quest Means Business, with Richard Quest, who is now widely known here as “Maze Man,” since his ad shows him striding, expressively, through a maze. (On reaching the center, he dings a little bell and shouts “WHAT A PROFITABLE DAY!” in a Nigel Thornberry voice.) If Quest et al. are not quite household names in the UK, they are, at least, now names in my household, where my girlfriend and I speak along in time with the ads, mimicking their cadence and gestures. (Her: “What about the prospect of an IPO or is it too soon?” Me: “It all starts here, and that’s why we’re here.”)
Choose your fighter pic.twitter.com/DCLETYbK4m
— Elsie 4 YL Scotland Rep (@elsieortong) November 6, 2020
While I see CNN’s election coverage through the eyes of a US-focused media critic, my friends do not. “CNN is awesome,” one texted me, a minute after the polls closed on Tuesday. “So much flashing stuff.” Earlier today, I checked in with that friend, and a few others I know to have been watching, to see if they were still enthused. The friend from Tuesday was. “Love the pomp and ceremony and drama,” said another. “So American.” A third: “It’s just very loud, and they seem to be constantly, like… doing stuff.” A fourth excitedly told me that CNN had just displayed the logo of an adult website on the Magic Wall. I assumed this friend hadn’t actually fallen for that very obvious viral hoax, but it turned out that he had. We’re all very tired.
A more serious theme recurred among my (highly unscientific) sample, as well as among British commentators online: that CNN is refreshingly forthright and no-nonsense compared with British broadcasters in general and with the BBC in particular. “John King turns a trickle of data into a bombardment of analysis, which is a pleasant change from the jovial but ultimately pointless interviews with political has-beens and minor celebrities on British election nights,” one friend wrote me; another added, “I didn’t even like John King that much and I found the BBC coverage simplistic compared to the power of CNN.” Others said they appreciated how strongly CNN anchors have called out Trump’s fraud lies.
This analysis might seem surprising to Americans: Britain, after all, has a notoriously partisan, scabrous press. Here, though, our broadcasters tend to be more sedate and old-fashioned, generally hewing more closely than print newspapers to notions of civility and objectivity. CNN, to my mind, hews to those principles, too, but it’s generally brasher about asserting them. To oversimplify, the tone of British newspapers is more like US TV, whereas US newspapers are more like British TV.
Novelty, of course, is also important here. There would have been huge UK interest in the presidential election anyway—as well as a desire to hear about it from an American perspective—but it’s also happened to coincide with a particularly miserable, boring period in British life, straddling the start of a new, national coronavirus lockdown.
Not that everyone here has been impressed by all the flashing things. “I watched CNN election coverage for about ten hours last night and felt, at the time, loads of incredible white knuckle things were going on constantly,” Barney Ronay, a sports writer for The Guardian, tweeted earlier. “This morning it turns out nothing actually happened.” I had a similar reaction, from my strange transatlantic perch. It was not a very profitable day.