TV news learned nothing from 2016: Sports-style election coverage remains terrible and short-sighted

In downplaying the blue wave, TV news misses Tuesday's rising tide of change

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published November 7, 2018 10:30AM (EST)

James Carville (MSNBC)
James Carville (MSNBC)

Very early in Tuesday's prime-time, barely after the first polls closed, veteran Democratic strategist James Carville came on MSNBC to deflate liberal hopes.

“There was some hope that Democrats would have a wave election. It’s not going to be a wave election,” he humbugged, adding that it could still be a good election while admitting that he was too optimistic about Florida.

When MSNBC anchor Brian Williams asked him about the likelihood of Democrats picking up enough seats to take control of the House — at that point, around 5:30 p.m. PT, they needed 21 — Carville was downright glum. “There’s still a good chance that the Democrats win the House, but I see the chances of a wave dissipating every time I see something on the board,” he said.

Given the electoral sucker punch America sustained in 2016, his hesitance is understandable. Carville remembered how shocking that November night shaped up to be, so perhaps he was wise to temper his excitement. But there’s curbing one’s enthusiasm, and there’s missing the bigger picture. Tuesday night's coverage on cable news and broadcast channels were guilty of the latter.

One of the lessons 2016 taught voters is that polls simply cannot be trusted anymore. The data on, in which many an anxious politically-minded citizen still trusts, was tossed on its head. In this election cycle the site did a fair job of predicting the major outcome — Democrats assumed power in Congress as Republicans held on to the Senate — while whiffing other high-profile races, such as tilting the Florida governor’s race toward Democrats.

Basing forecasts off of poll data is FiveThirtyEight's bread and butter. When the TV media ecosystem does that, treating parties like teams and reading incoming trickles of results as if they are plays in a major sporting event, that shortchanges consumers. Granted, this is a longstanding election night strategy for TV news. But in the same way politics as usual was tossed out the window in 2016, the horse-race model is unsuited to the new landscape that demands consideration and context, answering questions about American culture resulting from any major election.

Donald Trump's ascendance to the Oval Office in 2016 yielded endless hours of journalistic soul searching and opinion writers, data crunchers and journalists of every stripe earnestly strove to figure out what the media missed about the country's changing mood.

First came the hand-wringing over how wrong the polls were (and continue to be). Then came the scores of stories about the forgotten white working-class voter alleged to have put Trump in office, debunked by subsequent data findings indicating that around two thirds of Trump supporters in the 2016 election are relatively affluent white people.

Initial reasoning that Trump won due to promises about job creation fell away when subsequent analysis pointed to racial animus. The spike in anti-Semitic and race-based hate crimes and the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville underscore this. Multiple reports about voter suppression, especially in Georgia — where Secretary of State Brian Kemp oversaw the removal of more than 300,000 voters from the state's rolls prior to running for governor against Stacey Abrams, a black woman — made headlines.

Had the media truly learned from 2016, framing election night coverage in the context of these stories would have been more helpful than making us leap out of our skin with “KEY RACE ALERTS” to announce the trickling-in of a few hundred new votes.

When the name of the game is speed and the currency is viewer anxiety, the familiar model rules. It’s a game plan everyone knows, and it maximizes the drama of a process that would otherwise be fairly boring.

But strategy also gives short shrift to important narratives emerging over the course of the night, reducing the story of 2018 to a numbers game drilling down upon a few headlines that, among other things, depressed the Ragin' Cajun.

Early in the day Fox News and CNN each trotted past on-the-ground reports of technical malfunctions and under-equipped polling places in Georgia, with anchors glibly remarking that voting was proceeding apace, albeit with long lines. Twitter told a different story, with real-time reports of broken machines and inadequate supplies at polling places rolling in as cable news sallied forth.

Soon many anchors and reporters were reflecting Carville’s disappointment that the wave was not a tsunami. Even as Fox News came out early in calling the U.S. House for the Democrats, others seemed down in the mouth that the Dems didn’t wrest Senate control away from the GOP.  Even the kindest poll data never shaded the odds of that in blue.

In Texas Trump’s ally, “beautiful” Senator Ted Cruz, narrowly eked out a victory over Democratic party superstar Beto O’Rourke. In Florida, Republican Ron DeSantis triumphed in the race for governor despite a media narrative that favored Democratic candidate Andrew Gillum.

In Georgia, Democratic challenger Abrams refuses to concede defeat to her GOP challenger Kemp, assuring supporters that she'd make sure every vote is counted.

With so many changes taking place in the country demographically, culturally and socially, a 2016 game-plan was destined to stumble.

Yet that’s exactly what we were served across the board, by news teams on cable and network, each differentiating itself by its level of confidence and little else.

Fox’s team, led by Martha MacCallum and Bret Baier, flanked by Brit Hume and Chris Wallace, exercised sobriety for the most part interspersed with gleeful jabs from Laura Ingraham. In her pre-primetime appearance with “The Five” she enjoyed an invigorating, gut-busting laugh alongside Greg Gutfeld in reaction to the Reuters headline, “Win or lose, O’Rourke set to emerge victorious.”

This was hours before O’Rourke transformed the Texas contest for the Senate seat held by Republican Ted Cruz into a nail-biter, a challenge Cruz has not faced in many an election season. Even in defeat the national leadership is already humming about how his campaign provides a model for success and where they can run him next. So yes, that's a version of a win.

Later in the evening, with most of the votes tallied, pundits and anchors like CBS’ Gayle King poo-pooed the impact of the “blue wave" mostly because it did not achieve the impossible and wash across the U.S. House, Senate and governor's races. Depending on which desk you happened to be watching, the response to Tuesday’s night’s results was either meek bemusement or pompous schadenfreude, the second demonstrated by Ingraham when the races for Senate and governor in Florida defied polls and made a clear advance into red territory.

If Democrats lost in Florida and George, Ingraham scoffed, “Oprah, Obama, the entire mainstream media have a huge amount of egg on their face. They invested huge in turning those states blue. And if those states don’t flip blue, I think they have a lot to answer for, not Donald Trump.”

On the other side of the political spectrum MSNBC’s Nicolle Wallace all but peeped, “We may have misrepresented the ease with which Gillum would win.”

And the night cruised along thusly, very much like it did in 2016.

If we weren’t battling small heart attacks with each "KEY RACE ALERT" based on 1 percent of votes counted, we were fighting to stay awake as a soporific John King regularly warned us not to read too much into said alert.  MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki employed a demonstratively nimbler and more insightful style as he ran down the minutiae of district and state races, but even that didn't illuminate much about the greater meaning of each result.

So when the unreasonably expected blue tsunami was not breaking as quickly or decisively as expected, the left's gains were characterized as just short of a fail as opposed to affirming that, though not a decisive hammering of the Trump agenda, it went about as well as could reasonably be expected. Yet even CBS’s team carried themselves as if they just found out all of the babies, puppies and kittens in the world suddenly raptured.

The problem with the classic election night "off to the races" model, besides still relying too heavily on broken indicators, is that it’s needlessly demoralizing. Yes, it’s a relief for the Democrats to see the number of Republican seats flipped and governorships moving over into their column. No doubt Republicans feel buoyed by increasing their majority rule in the Senate, ensuring another conservative Supreme Court pick should another Justice position come open. (Live long and prosper, RBG!)

Tuesday night's coverage was devoid of context breaking down the implications of progressive voter selections in a climate that's still swinging rightward, and what those choices may augur in terms of tangible shifts in governance, impacting races in 2020 and beyond. The media is equipped to do that, and the reporters covering the results should have, if only they hadn't been caught up in obsessing over photo finishes.

For anyone keeping an eye on the races outside of those starring Gillum and DeSantis, or O’Rourke and Cruz, a surge of blue victories defined the standard woeful narrative and did, indeed, push back against Trumpism. And if all politics is local, there's much to be contemplated in the passage of state-level amendments placing nonpartisan parties in charge of redistricting, a move against the gerrymandering that has so thoroughly screwed up any semblance of electoral parity.

Women have been elected to the U.S. House in huge numbers, including two Muslim women, Rachida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, and two Native American women, Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland. And as expected, 29-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the breakout progressive star from New York, became the youngest woman ever elected to the House.

Tuesday night yielded representative gains for the LGBTQ community at large (Davids, for example, is first openly LGBTQ person to represent Kansas) as well as women of color in House and gubernatorial races. Colorado elected the first openly gay man, Jared Polis, to the governor’s office.

Dems may have lost the Florida Senate and governor races, but that state's voters repealed a remnant of the Jim Crow era that denied voting rights to former felons. This means more than a million people, many of them minorities, are now eligible to cast ballots in 2020 who could not do so today.

All this, and Michigan voted to legalize marijuana for recreational use.

Speaking of Florida and the South, after all of the data about the role race and racism played in electing Trump, and the xenophobic rhetoric he exploited to transform the migrant caravan into a wedge issue, discussions about the role race played in the Kemp-Abrams race, and Gillum’s defeat, were non-existent until the wee hours. Fox News blamed Gillum's loss on being too leftist for Florida voters; Floridians of color might point to another “-ist” when discussing why DeSantis won.

In 2018 white supremacist groups were putting together horrifying robo-calls and DeSantis himself was urging his base not to “monkey up” the state’s election. To refrain from addressing race as a factor in an election that resulted in groundbreaking wins for women and people of color as the results shake out, both in reference to the electorate’s tribalism and issues of voter suppression, is irresponsible.

Elections are not a game, as so many voter advocacy groups and celebrities have incessantly repeated since the 2018 elections were within striking distance.

In 2016, the emergent flaw in breaking political coverage strategy was that a distracted media focused on the antics of a reality show star plying an entertainer's tactics. This may have gained them viewers in the short term, but it also drew attention away from issues of high importance, transforming the political debate from a consideration of substance and issues into a contest of which side peddled the better illusion.

The tenor of Tuesday night’s coverage proves that the illusion still holds.

“What you want to call a wave, what you want to call a red wall on the Senate side — a lot of that is just semantics and political spin,” said CNN’s Chris Cuomo. “The reality of it is the picture of this country and its electorate is pretty clear. We have divergent groups, and they are moving farther apart. That’s pretty much the headline, not to be cynical. It’s just the reality.”

Continuing to emphasize that headline over the tale of the incoming tide is preventing viewers from appreciating its possibility and significance.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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