One pleasant shock of election night was that the major networks and their cable-news kin decided to behave reasonably and catch a subdued tone. They were fairly cautious about presumptions and predictions at the outset. Fox’s slightly extended (and thus slightly louche) early-evening pondering of exit polls ranked as the friskiest behavior. On the other end of the spectrum, a guarded CNN made a point of flaunting its guardedness, having its anchors almost defensively explain why they weren’t ready to call Pennsylvania even as their buzzy body language suggested that they very much wanted to do so.
As the hours zipped on, the use of the assiduous subjunctive (“The effect of an Obama victory, if it happens …” “If he makes it, which we’re not assuming he will …”) became gradually more strained. The final gasps of puffing and pandering (with Fox News noting that the McCain campaign “objected” to Pennsylvania’s being called blue) were received ever more clinically. As Obama’s victory became apparent, viewers may have begun to steel themselves for hysteria, hyperbole, and quests for rhetorical grandeur that went over the top, there to be blown away by the strength of their own wind.
But the anchors arrived at a different idea and glided through the night making relaxed attempts at gravitas. (Had all of them searched for a mood in synch with the president-elect’s self-possession?) Though gravitas is itself an elusive and somewhat dubious concept, perhaps we can agree that achieving it is a matter of trafficking in poised phrases, controlled sentimentality, comforting historical perspective, capable timing, and, mostly, knowing when to shut up. At the conclusion of Obama’s speech, most anchors left their golden throats silent and let the crowd noise in Chicago tell the story.
Still, it wouldn’t have been television news without some bravura hype and aggressive flashiness. On CBS, Katie Couric (as calm and confident as she’s been at the anchor desk) hosted a sober presentation. Every other set looked like something you’d pick up at a Circuit City in Dubai. Within ABC’s airy and glossy Times Square set, Charlie Gibson poked and pinched a touch-screen election map every bit as snazzy as CNN’s. NBC and MSNBC leaned more heavily than ever on reports from virtual-reality rooms, their maps and graphs floating in front of some digital recreation of a set from The West Wing. But those gizmos—merely straightforward efforts to present data engagingly—were nothing compared with an embarrassing stunt that CNN first attempted in the 7 o’clock hour.
Wolf Blitzer was in his New York command center standing 10 paces away from a 3-D rendering of a reporter: “Jessica Yellin via hologram in Chicago.” The effects were such that she was ringed in an off-purple aura from head to toe (a distance, it seemed, of about 4 feet). This was distracting, perfectly superfluous, and in no way an advance on the good old two-dimensional Yellin to whom we are accustomed. This was just the latest example of CNN’s weakness for state-of-the-art technology that shows you little more than its state-of-the-artiness. On the other hand, the moment proved a worthy demonstration of Blitzer’s professionalism. As a YouTube commenter quickly remarked, “He is being awfully nonchalant about [the hologram]. I’d be trying to stick my hand through it and all that!” Even in the face of howling inanity, it was a night to play it cool.