The Short Memory of TV Pundits

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The Court's ruling is read outside the Supreme Court building

It was the triumph of old media over semi-old media. When the decision in Bush v. Gore II came down from the Supreme Court — literally, it was run down the steps by panting lackeys to the news networks' stand-up reporters — we learned the limitations of instant information: The information's only instant if you understand what it means.

The problem: Legal decisions are not soundbite-ready. They don't come with talking points, graphics and a prepackaged video B-roll. But TV is about now: Television that patiently waits for resolution and reasoned selection of detail is called "photography." So when the thick decision pamphlets came down the SCOTUS steps, it was speed-readin' time!

There is a special cruelty in expecting broadcasters to read anything more demanding than a TelePrompTer on live television, let alone in front of millions of viewers and the boss. It was a chilly night in Washington, and in rather a touching moment on MSNBC, one analyst's hands were actually shaking as he pawed desperately through his little SCOTUS booklet, apparently not reading according to the prescribed manner of any written language but anxious to show he was trying. As anchors at their respective desks champed at their mikes for the single answer, the money shot, the one payoff we'd been waiting for for a month, they discovered it was at the opposite end of a thicket of legalese.

So a squad of poor, hapless reporters and analysts had to simultaneously parse and stall, doing neither well, as their home offices politely drilled them to skim the damn thing and cut to the chase. Is Gore dead? Will there be a recount? Will I have to work on Christmas?!!

It was an interesting, if uncomfortable, bit of live drama, as for precious minutes the fumbling reporters tap-danced, giving useless definitions of certain Latin phrases as if to demonstrate that, even if they couldn't tell us who our next president was going to be, they were still worth their paychecks. On CNN, Roger Cossack seemed particularly lost and pitiable, hemming and hawing as Judy Woodruff pressed him on whether the decision ended the Gore campaign or not that it would be "irresponsible" to say anything conclusive before he'd read the whole opinion.

Oh, Rog, sad Rog: the network that pays you to argue with Greta Van Susteren in a fake courtroom on "Burden of Proof" is not paying you to be responsible. They're paying you for answers, now: If the answers are correct, that's gravy, but if you throw in a few ass-covering caveats, nobody'll remember in the morning. He finally came up with the general impression that the case was being overturned and sent back to Florida, where recounts might or might not resume, but — that classic hedge of Postelection 2000 — "this isn't over yet."

So it went, for a period of a half hour or so, during which you could see a consensus developing as, network by network, analysts hit on SCOTUS passages that more or less put the kibosh on further recounts. Which is not to say there wasn't plenty of room for interpretation. By 11 or so, there was agreement that it was all but over. Or that it wasn't! By just past 11, MSNBC was, at least on and off, calling George W. Bush the "President-elect." Or he wasn't! Maybe Al Gore would wait to answer. Or he was on the verge of conceding tonight! His advisers said he should concede. And they wanted him to fight it out! The decision was "devastating." And it left them lots of options! It "effectively ends things." And it's highly ambiguous! MSNBC's Brian Williams noted that he'd been reading the decision himself, brandishing a pair of glasses —who wants to bet they're not prescription? — to prove it. (Around midnight, Williams chided a wire service for "instant analysis" that had said the court had sent the case back to Florida — which not only was true, but was more or less the same "instant analysis" every news network came up with themselves.)

It was impressive, in a way. We all knew TV news would forget the lessons of election night — take your time and get it right when you're talking about the leadership of the free world. But who would have thought they'd manage to forget so fast? The fact is, viewers like me, and I suspect most of us, don't reward them for being slow and right: at 10 p.m., I was clicking the remote like a videogame junkie, instantly firing any network that wasn't giving me information, right or wrong, now, now, NOW.

And I'll hand it to them: They gave me what I wanted. By midnight, the only people, legally well-read or not, who didn't know exactly what the SCOTUS decision said and meant were the Gore camp, who wanted a day to scrutinize and respond to the ruling. It figures. After all, the votes for them have already been cast. The news networks go through a recount every time we grab the remote.