Is the media biased? You know it, I know it, everyone and their brother knows it, even if we can't necessarily agree on which way. Certain major chunks of the national media are a bit conservative-challenged; certainly too a major chunk of the well-paid, 401K-holding media elite aren't exactly friendly to firebrand radicalism.
The traditional defense proffered by journalists is that we're biased, all right but in favor of a good story. And that's true too.
But not all story biases are the same. In today's highly competitive election coverage, different stories would benefit some sectors of the media more than others. As you start your media-junkie journey around the dial and the Web today, here's a guide to which media genres win with which result.
Print: Bush wins. Well, not necessarily Bush, but at least an early win by one candidate that doesn't leave us waiting for days for absentee ballots, and at the moment Bush seems to be the guy with the best shot at an early, decisive win. The reason, of course, is that no one wants to be beaten on printing a winner, yet no one wants to run the next "Dewey Defeats Truman." Editors at, say, major weekly newsmagazines, will be in a tight spot come Wednesday, when presses are supposed to roll, if there's no decisive winner, especially if a winner could emerge before magazines land in subscribers' mailboxes.
The Internet: A landslide. This, at least, is the hopes of those renegade web journalists who plan to ignore the embargo on exit-poll results and post them as soon as they become available, while the TV networks sit on their hands. The bigger the win, the greater the margin by which Matt Drudge, say, can scoop Tom Brokaw. If winners start getting announced online early, expect pressure on TV to end-around the embargo by reporting the "news" of the leaks.
Network TV news: An upset. See under "The Internet." Brokaw and the rest of his handcuffed colleagues would love nothing better than to see the Drudges of the world go online boldly and embarrassingly with exit-poll results that prove to be wrong. And if it's an exciting enough nail-biter of an upset to boost ratings, hey, that's gravy.
Cable TV news: Splitsville! This is the dream of every American who loves nonstop media circuses and nightmare scenarios straight out of an airport paperback: A plurality of the people vote for one candidate (most likely Bush) while the electoral college makes the other (presumably Gore) president. Would it mean a constitutional crisis? Full-scale lobbying of electors to change their votes? Maybe and maybe but it would definitely mean some measure of suspense and controversy until the electors actually vote. Better yet, it would mean four years of bitter recriminations of a president, whoever it ends up being, viewed by a substantial chunk of the electorate as illegitimate.
That means four years of heated partisan argument, Monica-style ratings and Monica-sized stars being created among the commentariat, cashing in for the unfortunate president's entire term. And what could be more American than that?
And they said this election could never be about the environment. In fact, as the nation's citizens go through the irritating business of actually going to the polls and making us wait a whole day until we start analyzing and pontificating about their choices, the election, in the end, is all about the environment.
Well it's about the weather, anyway. For the past 24 hours, the cable news networks have turned into so many franchises of The Weather Channel, hauling out the Doppler machines and precipitation maps almost as often as those goofy electoral maps. (More on those later.) Between CNN, MSNBC and Fox, we've heard more about the weather in the Dakotas than we're likely to hear in a lifetime. (I for one was surprised to learn there are times in the upper Great Plains when it doesn't snow.) MSNBC supplemented footage of Fred Rogers going to the polls with an update on rain in St. Louis. Even the Weather Channel itself has gotten in the act, peppering its broadcast with reports on battleground-state weather, spiced with gripping footage of cars driving through the rain to polling places.
Are there any grounds for turning the nation's news organizations over to so many pipsqueak Al Rokers? There is a widespread, but according to at least some experts dubious, belief that bad weather benefits Republicans (who will have Jeeves fire up the SUV and drive to the polls in heated comfort) and hurts Democrats (who are so hindered already by The Man's oppression that a sizable shower makes exercising the franchise out of the question).
Campaigners will always find excuses after a loss, and the weather theory may have some basis, but you'll have to look hard for a concrete example of where snow, or sun, actually gave the election to one side or another. If it did, of course, it puts an interesting spin on actual environmental policy. Do the Republicans, by loosening pollution standards, really want to get a lock on future elections by altering the climate and buffeting the nation with freakish megastorms? Or are they sabotaging themselves by promoting global warming, thus guaranteeing balmy days in November in Democrat precincts in Detroit?
What the weather focus does do is reinforce the notion that the election is so close you can't dare change that channel so close a butterfly flapping its wing in the Amazon jungle could throw Oregon to Bush! Which of course may actually be true this time, but besides driving up ratings, it provides yet more butt-coverage for any unfortunate earlier prognostications. (Last night, many of the pundits were practically giving the election to Bush. If they're proved wrong, they could always blame it on the balmy weather in Miami.) And, during the downtime when polls are open, it adds yet provides yet more wonkish thread to spin while they wait for the returns.
In scant hours, the polls will close, and the talking heads will have something besides low-pressure centers to hold forth on. Then it'll be time to haul out your galoshes. But it won't be slush you'll be wading through.6 p.m.: The Spinshine State
Why TV pundits will be desperately spinning Florida
"Après moi, le déluge" (After me, the deluge) might well be the state motto of Florida today. The Sunshine State will not be the first state to have its polls close, but at 7 p.m. Eastern, it will be the first big prize. Perhaps the big prize, as the punditocracy have over the last few days declared it to be the Maginot Line of the 2000 election. (And with that, we hereby conclude the French metaphors for the duration of this piece.) Which means that come 7:01 p.m. ET, the deluge of heavy spin will arrive.
Without going through the electoral gymnastics, the consensus is that either candidate will have tough time winning the election without winning Florida. The last great deed all partisan commentators do on behalf of their party is convincing voters to the west that the election is already over and that, if you live in San Diego, you might as well use the time after work to run to the dry cleaners' instead.
The pressure to do so is higher this year, because of the fundmentals of this close election: If Gore wins, he's unlikely to win it before California votes all the more reason for Republican talking heads to spin a Bush Florida win early, and Gore partisans to do the opposite.
We don't know whether early TV election predictions can swing West Coast voting, as many have complained in the past. But needless to say, every little bit helps, or hurts, this year. And if the spin can in any way affect left-coast voters, then timing will be crucial. (Hence the fact that the not-exactly-neutral Matt Drudge was citing "campaign sources" um, I'll bet those are the folks he's tight with in the Gore camp giving polling edges to Bush in some key states.)
If Florida and other big battleground states don't actually get called until late, which is entirely likely, the call will be too late for California. So don't be surprised to hear mouthpieces spinning on every network beforehand. Last night, Fox News's Bill O'Reilly notoriously hostile to the Clinton-Gore administration adamantly predicted that he would call Florida during his 8 p.m. Fox broadcast. O'Reilly may well not get his wish. But there will be plenty of De Sotos ready to plant the flag in Florida by then anyway. Florida may be won and lost many times before the night's over.
At 6 p.m. ET, the polls closed in Kentucky and Indiana, where voters apparently get up really, really early or just don't have jobs. The major networks have joined their cable brethren at the election trough. And that gentle flutter you hear all across the TV spectrum is the sound of hands being tipped: the hints that "it looks like we're in for a long night," the suggestions that all is not well within certain Senate campaigns.
You might take these knowing comments as signs of the broadcasters' acute gut instincts, reporting chops and chutzpah. You're meant to. But suffice it to say: We're not brave folks in the media business. We don't generally send signals like this unless we have hidden reason to be confident. We know things, Peter Jennings, Jim Lehrer and I specifically, we've had access since mid-afternoon to the results of nationwide exit polls. These polls aren't magic, but they're predictive. And our organizations have signed binding agreements not to reveal them before polls close.
Of course, having inside info is useless unless you can employ it to make yourself look really smart. So if you listen closely, you can hear intimations of what the polls say, or don't, in the coverage. "It does promise to be a long night," Tom Brokaw said starting out tonight; likewise, NBC News's Campbell Brown said "It's very intense [at the Bush campaign] today there's a lot of tension, a lot of nervousness, a real sense of helplessness." (Without giving away the store, none of this means Gore's a winner; but it indicates that the election, which the consensus had tacitly been giving to Bush all day Monday, has at least actually turned out to be a real nail-biter.)
Thus, likewise, CNN telegraphed heavily the poll-predicted fate of a certain high-profile Senate candidate who, of of some quaint, outmoded respect for the thousands of people who have yet to vote for or against this person, I will not name. "This is going to be a very tense time," said a CNN reporter at the Mr./Ms. Senate Candidate HQ. The report was followed by a certain high-profile partisan pundit, married to another certain high-profile partisan pundit, giving a litany of excuses why Mr./Ms. Contender might have done better. Although oh, by the way "It's not over yet."
Not unless you're paying attention, anyway.
"So you're reviewing the election coverage?" one of my colleagues just said to me. "Who's winning?"
Alas for our competitive society! Must there always be winners and losers? Can none of us succeed in our endeavors unless others also fail?
Yes. Well, frankly, it's hard to say any network is hands-down better or worse most election nights, given the sameness of most of their roundtable-talking-head-electoral-map setups. But we can hand out a few awards, anyway, with more to come:
Most Intimidating Election-Night Set: ABC. Peters Jennings is presiding from the starship deck of what looks like a rejected set for "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," accessorized with a giant panel of honeycomb, and the ubiquitous New York City streetscape does nothing to soften things. Worse, every person on the team Jennings, Sam Donaldson, Cokie Roberts is forced to stand coolly and uncomfortably, like the keyboard players in an early-'80s New Wave band. Who's the network news sadist who decided anchors suddenly can only seem authoritative if they stand for hours on end? This could be a remake of ABC's millennium coverage, when an exhausted Jennings got increasingly punch-drunk as the night went on. I hope.
Coolest Electoral Map Gimmick: CBS. All "turnover states" those that went for the opposite party in 1996 throb like beating, irradiated hearts. Right now, Kentucky looks like it's going to explode.
Biggest Potential Gloating Rights: MSNBC. Or really, the MSNBC/Reuters tracking poll. For the last week or so, the poll had the race tighter than any of the major tracking polls, by a few points. By Monday, when the poll actually showed Gore leading Bush by two points, MSNBC's anchors introduced its results sheepishly, noting that every other poll disagreed with them and embarrassingly following it up with another poll from its parent, NBC, that showed Bush with a three-point lead. The poll's actual Gore lead may not be vindicated, but it's at least looking a lot less stupid.
The lesson: It pays to be different. If Gore ekes out a win, the network will do an end-zone dance. If he loses, nobody will remember their poll in three days, anyway.
First and Last Award for Electoral-Call Coup: NBC is the first to declare Florida for Gore. Which is quite an achievement, if he actually wins it. We're giving the award for the first time here because Florida, as mentioned above, was the key call of the night though this ends nothing. And we're giving it the award for the last time here because I believe these meaningless fights over who's 0.8 seconds faster to make whatever call are irrelevant to everyone and probably the cause of a lot of boneheaded journalistic decisions.
Hope you bought Doritos. We're going to be here for a while.9 p.m.: Louie, Louie, We Gotta Go?
We critics are the first ones to call other people on it when their predictions are wrong, so it's about time I made one of my own: If George W. Bush loses, expect him to get the spanking of his life in the media. We got the first inkling of what the post-election story will be this evening, when MSNBC's Brian Williams remarked, after a couple of key setbacks for Bush, that in Austin, "The party seemed to be ready to start." In other words, Bush overreached. He was smug. That victory party, scheduled possibly to start even before West Coast polls closed, is starting just maybe, if Bush loses to become the Bush smirk writ large.
The reason? The media have been telling you for the past several days they thought this election was too close to call. They were lying. Oh sure margin of error, blah blah blah. But behind it all, for the past few days, the subtext, not too hard to catch if you watched a lot of cable news, was that we were about to meet President Dubya. (Which, again, we still might.) Bush was confident, Gore was struggling; Bush was striking broad, presidential themes, Gre was still trying to find his message.
To put it bluntly: If Bush loses, he will have made the American media look like a bunch of dumbasses, and they will hammer him for it if nothing else to mitigate their own embarrassment. What was confidence yesterday has become questionable today and will be called arrogant tomorrow. The afternoon jogs. The naps. The relatively early finish to the campaign, compared with Gore's marathon. And above all, that party: As I write, you can bet a dozen political scribes are trying to find new ways to describe it as the Frat Party That Was Not To Be.
Later this same hour, Michigan and Pennsylvania fell to Gore, and Tom Brokaw too was subtly taunting Senator Fred Thompson about the Austin party. This party, however, isn't quite over yet. Anybody wants to bring some Cheez-Its by the Time-Life Building in Manhattan, you'd be more than welcome.
Attention, Tim Russert. It's "trifecta." Tri-FEC-ta. NOT Tri-FAC-ta. Thank you.
Hillary Clinton has won New York, and we now have the saddest television image of the campaign to date. Rick Lazio, her opponent, taking his daughter with him into the ballot box inside a Ford dealership. There's something so sad and small about the idea, about executing this grand, public, civic gesture in a private business, a car dealership, no less. Not to sound like Doris Kearns Goodwin here, but voting should take place in schools, in courthouses, settings that call to mind our common bond and the idea of aspiring to a better future. Places that call to mind the Pledge of Allegiance, not the phrase, "You're gonna want to get the full undercoating package on that, right?"
ABC's election-cast is threatening to become like some journalistic Hands on a Hardbody contest, as the entire iron-calved Alphabet news crew is going for their third hour standing up. (Except for George Stephanopoulous, but maybe they just didn't want to subject the poor guy to the embarrassment of being dwarfed by the statuesque Jennings.) Further accentuating the "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" parallel, Jennings throws out a question to the audience Do you think Hillary will run for president now? to vote on at the ABC web site. Thanks, Pete, but I think tangling with the absentminded old ladies at my polling place was enough interactive voting for one day.
Meanwhile, over at CNN, you have to wonder if the first cable news network hasn't finally become the new PBS, and not in a good way. (Let's assume for the sake of argument it's possible for that phrase to be taken in a good way.) Thoroughness, yes. Crack, thoughtful analysts and reporters, sure. But CNN's coverage tonight lacks any sense of excitement and urgency. Bill Schneider, Bernard Shaw, Judy Woodruff and Jeff Greenfield, spread out along a giant desk, come across at times like four strangers laconically chatting while waiting for a bus. And though I admire the guy and hate to say it, you've gotta place some of the blame on Bernard Shaw, sheathed in his 12-inch bulletproof coating of gravitas; it just seems to deaden anything approaching an irreverent bullpen sensibility, which you need if you plan to stay up with a news crew until 3 a.m.
Which is looking increasingly, increasingly likely. Oy.
10:20 p.m.: Oops! Let's Count That Again Just for the record, I'm not going back and editing these pieces retroactively as I go. In an earlier dispatch tonight, I actually did write:
"Florida may be won and lost many times before the night's over."
"First and Last Award for Electoral-Call Coup: NBC is the first to declare Florida for Gore. Which is quite an achievement, if he actually wins it. ... We're giving it the award for the last time here because I believe these meaningless fights over who's 0.8 seconds faster to make whatever call are irrelevant to everyone and probably the cause of a lot of boneheaded journalistic decisions."
Ahem. Let it be noted that CNN, ABC, CBS and, finally, NBC have moved Florida back into the "too close to call" column. "If you're disgusted with us," said Dan Rather at CBS, "frankly I don't blame you. But everybody in the business virtually has called Florida for Gore based on data that turns out to be suspect."
None of this means anything (just as, it turns out, the networks' first call of Florida, it turns out, didn't mean anything either). And as a sheepish Tom Brokaw is himself saying now, "Just because we project a state... doesn't make it so." OK. But projecting a state should mean a pretty solid confidence that you're not going to need to un-project it. If you don't have that confidence, then why project it? Simple. To win a pointless, irrelevant journalistic competition.
God knows we still don't know which way Florida, or the election, is going to go. But that smirk we were talking about earlier? If Dubya ends up winning, he may just have earned it.
I'm not going to suggest that television networks are going to learn any permanent lessons from one of their own mistakes, but I'm beginning to worry that the Florida flip-flop means that they're going to spend next rest of the evening behaving ick responsibly. No skylarking, no premature calls, no leaps of prognostication: just patient waiting and discussion. After the exit polls burned them once, we may have to wait until Dan Rather counts the last absentee ballot himself until we get a call in the Sunshine State. The note of caution seems to have spread to the talking heads as well: Even predictable partisan battle-axes like Mike McCurry and Mary Matalin seem weirdly subdued.
With the electoral stream slowing and a potential long wait ahead for Florida, there's little left to do but interview party mouthpieces and spin out scenarios, the most popular current one being an electoral tie. Which made CNN's political analyst Jeff Greenfield, who described just such an electoral scenario in his novel "The People's Choice," something of an instant expert. It led to an inadvertently embarrassing moment though, when Bernard Shaw, evidently less than thoroughly familiar with his colleague's work, asked Greenfield, "How did the electors in your novel work out?" (Greenfield, to his credit, didn't finish his answer, "And thanks for reading it, Bernie!")
A couple more hours of this and Bush and Gore will be offering to flip for Florida.
1:15 a.m.: Same Funeral, New Corpse If you are not watching CBS at this moment, for God's sake, get up and change the channel now. It's getting into the wee morning hours, and that means we're reaching the sweet spot with Dan Rather, whose delivery is getting stranger, more rambling and Shatneresque by the moment. The man just delivered a sentence that may have lasted a full minute. "John making the point because the Gore people making the point to them that they cling to the idea and it's not too far-fetched they cling to the idea that in the 10 percent of the precincts not out and counted in Florida, including that rather unusual case of some ballot boxes quote being left behind by some inexperienced volunteers unquote that the Gore people cling to the idea that..." (Sic, on all points.) Some closed-captioning writer had better be getting disability pay for following this.
Meanwhile at MSNBC, the razor-close election is bringing out the fractious Irish ward politician in Chris Matthews, who's cajoling Paul Begala and Mike Barnicle to spin out fantasies of missing ballot boxes and court challenges. Indeed, as the vote total in Florida is shading toward Bush, the best chance for a dragged-out bloodbath for TV to cover may now be a legal challenge. On ABC, Peter Jennings is asking every Democratic politician who comes on the air whether Gore should fight over close states in court.
Earlier tonight, the networks were more or less calling Bush DOA even as he lived and breathed. Following the Florida caper, the networks are now not ready to declare Gore dead until the body decomposes: On MSNBC, political analyst Patrick Caddell said that if not for the snafu, the networks would have called the state for Bush by now. But they're going to read the eulogies, anyway, all night if necessary.
You out there! If you have those ballot boxes, return them immediately! America is getting cranky.
NBC announced it first. But we've already learned once tonight that announcing it first is not necessarily announcing it best. So let's leave it to CBS's Dan Rather, the guy who declared it second, but with a creative elocution befitting our new leader-elect...
"George W. Bush. The presidency is George W. Bush."
Let's note, by the way, that Bush's victory in Florida and thus the nation was then announced, in order, by CNN, ABC and Fox, all of which I trust you'll find will still be in business tomorrow. Although, after the Voter News Service debacle of earlier in the evening, Peter Jennings of ABC was positively spooked by the thought of declaring any victor in the campaign, ever: "Unless there is a terrible calamity," he hedged. "George W. Bush will be the next president of the United States." Shortly after at least in New York ABC weirdly switched, mid-report, to a commercial for the Learning Institute for Beauty Sciences.
Then it was open season for those pent-up post-election platitudes. The requisite reminders that this wonderful country is capable of effecting a peaceful transition of power. The puzzled reflections that it was really Al Gore's election to lose. And at last, as memorably offered by the punchy Mr. Rather: "a big tip an a hip-hip-hooray and a great big Texas howdy to the next president of the United States. Sip it, savor it, cup it, photostat it, underline in red, press it in a book, put it in an album, hang it on a wall..."
With that we wrap, but not before offering a few final awards. Sip them, cup them...
Prop of the Evening: Hands down, Tim Russert and his magic whiteboard. Amid zillions of dollars of network equipment, the NBC commentator brandished his electoral-counting scribbleboard with great facility, like a mighty shield of wonkitude.
Most Bizarre Tip of the Hat: Tom Brokaw, at about 2 a.m., doing a dead-solid imitation of David Brinkley saying, "I thought I'd be out somewhere having a lemon squash and a glass of milk at this hour."
Greatest Moment of Genuine Sympathy for Someone's Who's Generally a Media Blowhard: Rev. Jesse Jackson, clearly barely able to hold back sobs in an interview with Peter Jennings.
Undersung Losers of the Evening: Laura Ingraham, Ann Coulter and company. Among the greatest benefactors of the Clinton Administration's largesse have been the hot young stars of the conservative commentariat, who've risen to talk-show stardom in opposition to the White House. With Republicans running each branch of the government, who will be left to oppose for the ratings? Will they be forced to take unglamorous, poorly paid jobs actually helping to run the country?
And finally, Most Apt Prophecy of the Evening: Jeff Greenfield, CNN "If Bush wins Florida, there could be some exit-pollers looking for a new job." Who knows? The new administration might well be glad to have them.
Or maybe not.
As my colleague Josh Tyrangiel just said, "This has now gotten better than O.J." We have now had, and lost, a president-elect. We have had reports of what had to have been the most uncomfortable phone call in American democracy, as Al Gore called to retract his concession, earlier phoned in to his opponent.
"Gore Retracts Concession" honestly, can you imagine any other public figure's name at the beginning of a sentence like this? Is there any greater irony than having your plans for a recount announced by a man with the last name Daley?
By 4 a.m., the networks again declared Florida, and thus the nation, too close to call. Tom Brokaw was caught munching a cracker on camera and burst out into uncontrollable laughter along with the rest of the NBC studio. The anchors are punch-drunk, and so am I. A bleary-eyed election official looks like she's about to collapse into the camera on ABC. "We're not exactly sure what quite to do next," said Peter Jennings. You said it, Petey.
If anybody out there is still watching, tape this for your grandchildren.
The NBC cameraman, a little punchy like the rest of us, is waxing avant-garde. He or she is focusing tight on the state of Florida, marked "too close to call" on the electoral map. There's a red tint to the picture, and the state is colorless, ringed in a bright line. The camera has a bit of a fuzzy focus effect, so that the state appears to be etched onto the map by a luminous ring of fire.
And that's just about right. We've moved past "Twilight Zone" territory here and gone straight into "Kolchak: The Night Stalker" territory. I've just heard Tom Brokaw do a mesmerizing interview with an election worker. An election worker.
After the initial can-you-believe-this reaction to the phantom victory, the networks have seemed to settle into a comfortable, if surreal groove, doing the kind of talky, laid-back coverage you can afford to do at 4 in the morning while you wait for a recount. George Stephanopoulous, for instance, finally had the chance to earn his keep on ABC as a former Clintonista, guesstimating what sort of discussions must be going on among the Gore staff. (His theory: the Gore-ites will use impeachment as a rationalization for using what legal means they need to challenge the results, at least initially.)
Oregon and Wisconsin also remain too close to call. I hope they don't feel slighted.
It looks as though, for some hours, we will be in the sweet, sweet land of historical fiction, speculating bizarre endgames that only emerge in mediocre novels written by journalists. On NBC, Jonathan Alter is speculating that if Gore wins the popular vote, he'll litigate the Florida results and try to build a groundswell of popular support. (Right. Because America just loves a litigator.)
On that freaky CBS map, the states continue to pulse and throb, as if they may explode under the right circumstances. And that seems just about right too.