TV election coverage sizzles, but crowd really dazzles

November 06, 2008|By NEIL JUSTIN / Minneapolis Star Tribune

It may have been election night, but the media approached Tuesday's coverage like they were putting on a July Fourth party, decorating the historic event with garish, bombastic visuals and special effects that would rival a billion-dollar fireworks display.

On CNN, Wolf Blitzer grilled correspondents who were beamed into the studio by hologram, a stunt mercifully not sabotaged by Klingons. NBC's Ann Curry and Chuck Todd, saddled with the arduous task of breaking down poll numbers, were transformed into Roman statesmen, broadcasting from a virtual set that looked like Julius Caesar's parlor. NBC also transformed the ice rink at Rockefeller Center into a giant tote board as workers laid down red and white vinyl panels over the states etched onto the surface, just in case passengers on planes overhead wanted an update.

Many anchors spent the evening with their fingers nimbly dancing over high-tech maps, allowing them to go so deep into each state's districts that I seriously worried that CNN's John King was going to punch up my house and reveal that I was watching in my boxers from the Gerald Ford collection.


PBS's Jim Lehrer got off the driest line of the night when he introduced his show's graphics, which looked a lot like a third-grader's jigsaw puzzle.

"Now we're going to dazzle you with a map," he said. "I'm so impressed by it."

Fox News showed the most restraint in the shock-and-awe department, concentrating on calling races ahead of the competition. Brit Hume and company appeared to give Ohio and Pennsylvania to Barack Obama well before the other networks, a point that may surprise those who believed Fox would go kicking and screaming into the night as John McCain failed to make up ground.

All the media's self-generated "dazzlers" paled in comparison to the scene at Grant Park, where the Obama victory bash displayed against a spectacular view of the Chicago skyline.

The best moments of the evening came when analysts, anchors and pundits took a deep breath and turned the drama over to the exuberant crowd of people cheering, crying, celebrating a slice of history. Speechless spectators were more eloquent and more moving than any graphics.

That's not to take anything away from CBS's Byron Pitts, who seemed to hold back tears in the moments after Obama clinched the victory. The African-American correspondent pulled a photo from his family album and talked about how much has changed in his life.

"I'm going to call your mom," anchor Katie Couric said afterward, who didn't realize she was still on camera. It was the best mistake of the evening.

Voices like Pitt's were a welcome relief in an evening that still relied on veteran commentators, many of whom make McCain look as spry as a Boy Scout. It's valuable to hear from the likes of Tom Brokaw and Bob Schieffer, but I'm not sure almost everyone had to speak to Rudolph Giuliani, who made the rounds to show off his frighteningly red tie.

It's time for the media to pinpoint new voices, new thoughts, new spins as part of their coverage. If this is truly the era of change, it's going to take more than "Star Trek"-like technology for the networks to reflect that.

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