How TV elected to cover the vote
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PHILADELPHIA -- Whether your guy won or lost on Tuesday night, you have to admit it made for compelling television.
"The graphics, the tickers, it looked great on all the channels," says TV news analyst Andrew Tyndall. "I wasn't impressed by the insights or the reporting, but it looked fantastic. It was sweet television."
Well, with one exception. "It was the first time I noticed how far behind PBS has fallen in the competition," says Mr. Tyndall. "They always looked like the slightly dowdy, austere relative, but they were still in the same business. But this time they looked like the Wayne's World of political television."
Mock PBS if you must, but never doubt that Big Bird and Jim Lehrer were both heaving sighs of relief late Tuesday night.
At least, now that the great battle is over, we can expect a tone of civility and respect to return to our scorched airwaves. Right?
"I think the election will actually strengthen the antagonism of Fox News and MSNBC," says Christopher Harper, professor of journalism at Temple University. "The election clearly shows that we are a nation divided almost straight down party lines and ethnic lines. I think it will make those news organizations and perhaps others as well more strident."
But do the politically oriented cable news channels merely reflect that division -- or do they exacerbate it?
"We've become a society where people get their information from radically different sources," says Mary Beth Oliver, distinguished professor of communications at Pennsylvania State University.
"Conservatives drift to Fox News; liberals drift to MSNBC," says Ms. Oliver. "There's a shift to greater selectivity, an opportunity to choose one source of information, one that constantly reiterates your own point of view. This living in an echo-chamber environment contributes to greater antagonism between people of different political persuasions."
Ratings would indicate that we prefer guerrilla theater to the traditional headline news approach.
"I think people are looking for more raw meat and more debate with an edge, rather than an anchor on high speaking like Moses," says Temple's Harper. "I think CNN and the networks are really dull.
"I found Fox really entertaining [on Election Night]," he continues. "They had good guests. Mike Huckabee said that the Florida Panhandle is 'all God, guns, grits and gravy.' That's just a great line."
FNC also had the night's most gripping drama, a scene torn from "The Caine Mutiny." It came when Fox, based on the painstaking voting analysis of its behind-the-scenes Decisions Desk, called Ohio for President Obama. Karl Rove, sitting at the anchor desk with Megyn Kelly and Bret Baier, vehemently disputed the news just delivered on his own network.
"That stood out head and shoulders above everything else that happened Election Night," says Mr. Tyndall. "The cameras followed Kelly down the hallway to supervise the argument between the people in the front office and the people in the back office.
"It was riveting television but self-destructive for their credibility," he continues. "They were visually telling the viewers: 'In the back room we have people who know facts. In front of the cameras, we have people who make things up.' "
Of course, when it comes to cable news, the pot really doesn't have much room to call the kettle black.
"There was a Pew study earlier this week," notes Mr. Harper, "that said MSNBC is considered more biased than Fox. Journalists hide behind the guise of fairness and objectivity all the time. We all have agendas. I think it's healthier to admit your biases. I'd prefer to know where someone is coming from so I don't have to guess."
Ironically, considering how deeply involved and invested they had been in the presidential race, the cable news organizations had no hand in its biggest story.
"What was the decisive moment in the campaign?" asks Paul Levinson, professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University. "I think looking over everything, it was Romney's '47 percent' comments, which were captured not by a professional journalist, but by a waiter who had his smartphone. It ended up on YouTube. When you have a video of someone, that really can't be refuted. That's the takeaway from this election -- the importance of this kind of media."
There's another takeaway as well: Rancorous, disparaging advocacy cable coverage is not going away.
"Engaging in genuine discourse and delving into issues and context -- there's a worry that that will cause viewers to disengage," says Penn State's Ms. Oliver. "So they go for the emotional piece. It's what they see as a profitable quick fix."
But the president vowed in his acceptance speech no more red states and blue states, only the United States. The cable combatants have got to take that to heart. Right?
"I guess the first test is going to be whether Congress and Obama can compromise on the Bush tax cuts," says Mr. Harper. "That's raw meat for Fox and MSNBC. I don't think we've seen our Kumbaya moment yet."
First Published November 12, 2012 12:00 am