Democracy In (TV) Action
By Jim Kershner
Please, don’t utter the words “mandate,” “split government,” or “exit poll” too loudly to me right now.
I am suffering from an election-coverage hangover. You would be, too, if you had just channel-surfed for eight solid hours through the local and national election broadcasts on Tuesday night.
Here are a few of the highlights, lowlights, observations, kudos and complaints from this electoral marathon:
Best unscripted moment: When David Brinkley on ABC said the following about Clinton’s victory: “We all look forward with great pleasure to four years of wonderful, inspiring speeches, full of wit, poetry, music, love and affection – plus more goddamned nonsense.”
“You can’t say that on the air, Mr. Brinkley,” replied anchor Peter Jennings.
“Well I’m not on the air,” said Brinkley.
Most embarrassing unscripted moment: The silence, seconds later, when Brinkley realized Jennings wasn’t kidding.
Spokane’s local TV coverage was generally solid, competent and timely. KREM-2 and KHQ-6 get extra credit for easy-to-understand graphics. KXLY-4 gets marked down for not always showing the percentage of the precincts counted. That is vital information, especially early in the counting.
On a similar subject: How can there be a vote tally based on “0 percent” of the precincts, which I saw several times Tuesday night? “0 percent” is literally zero, so maybe it would be more accurate to say “less than one percent.”
Worst local interview: Take your pick of any of the pre-8 p.m. interviews in which the question is invariably, “What do you expect the numbers to show?” and the answer is invariably, “Let’s just wait and see what the numbers show.”
Question: Why have local coverage before 8 p.m. at all? Because the networks provide numerous news breaks for local affiliates, and on the West Coast most of them come before 8 p.m.
So the time is filled with exchanges such as this:
“What’s the mood down there, Dana?”
(Camera pans over empty headquarters). “Take a look at this! Balloons everywhere!”
Everybody complains about the networks declaring a winner early. In this case it happened at 6 p.m. our time, two hours before our polls had even closed.
Yet anybody paying close attention actually knew much earlier that Clinton had locked it up. At 4:30 p.m. our time, Clinton was declared the winner of two states that were must-wins for Dole: Ohio and Florida. Nobody came out and said it for another 90 minutes, but the suspense was already over.
Dan Rather of CBS had a tongue that was flapping like the broken alternator belt on a ’57 Chevy on a West Texas highway.
At least, that’s an attempt to put it in Rather-speak. Here are a few genuine Ratherisms from Tuesday night:
“This race is as tight as a too-small bathing suit on a too-long ride back from the beach.”
“The re-election of Bill Clinton is as secure as a double-knot tied in wet rawhide.”
“Voting is hand to hand, House to House, Senate to Senate.”
The Internet proved a handy way of getting fast results on Tuesday night. I checked in to Spokane County’s election web page, where I saw the results as fast as they were counted, automatically updated every five minutes.
The only warning: The page shows only county votes. In the governor’s race, for instance, it showed Gary Locke with only a slight lead over Ellen Craswell. In fact, Locke was beating Craswell by 20 points statewide.
Maybe there is some value in having an anchor to explain things.
Local mistakes were minor, mostly slips of the tongue. KREM-2’s Charles Rowe referred to Clinton’s victory speech as a “nomination” acceptance speech; a reporter referred to KHQ-6’s Randy Shaw as “Gary,” which Shaw handled gracefully.
Nobody pulled a Brinkley.
The funniest line uttered by a comedian, as opposed to a politician, came from Al Franken on “Politically Incorrect” on Comedy Central. In rebutting the idea that the campaign had been dull, he said, “Do you know what I’m going to miss? The CNN-USA Today tracking poll. You never knew from one day to the next whether Clinton’s lead would be 15 points, or 16 points.”
Thursday, November 7, 1996