The Balsams is a mountain resort of the type where gentlemen must wear jackets in the evening and the windows will be draped in chintz until the end of time. It is here that television’s Election Day ritually begins, as the village of Dixville Notch, N.H., undertakes its midnight vote. Around 12:01 a.m., CNN lost its video feed, so its correspondent was forced to phone in to Larry King Live with the news of an Obama victory (15 votes to McCain’s six) and, no less important, of journalists on the scene outnumbering voters (by a ratio of 3-to-1).
Viewers with a deep thirst for this kind of harmless nonsense switched over to MSNBC, where we saw the Dixvillians doing their duty for American democracy and well-hyped Americana. They dropped their paper ballots into a wooden box under the warm eyes of some avuncular public servant. His bow tie was more punctilious than the landscaping of the hotel’s croquet lawn. I should have gone to bed right then to dream cozily of supercompetent election officials and the straight-backed citizens who owe them trust but greedily did not, and so witnessed MSNBC’s David Schuster interviewing the bold bald head of Joe the Plumber, that walking talking point and little-league demagogue. In his role as the leading pseudo-celebrity of this election season, he quasi-said some semi-things.
In Joe’s defense, his enablers at the cable news networks have been up to the same thing for a few days. You would, too, given this much air to fill, these many camera setups to test, and so much nothing to report. Consider a Monday CNN segment hosted by Campbell Brown. (I single out Brown only because she, bright-eyed and spunky, is my new favorite; last week, she teased footage of Joe the Plumber press coverage with the irked caveat that the matter would be addressed “briefly, believe me.”) Yesterday, Brown spent a good deal of time telling us how to watch tonight’s coverage—what to make of the big picture as particular states were called. While this was a reasonable way to warm up some new graphics, it seemed a bit much for CNN to ask of its most spoiled viewers. Learning how to watch the coverage? Some of us had been expecting that we could just tune in and they’d tell us what was happening as we went along.
This afternoon, CNN has not quite been watchable, purely on account of a cognitive-dissonance-inspiring weather report flashing on the right-hand side of the screen: The reporter will be speaking from Cleveland, say, but the text and map will be featuring Fargo, N.D., and you’ve got to get away from the juxtaposition and find the ibuprofen. Meanwhile, the other news channels are discovering their own cluttered ways to build tension and to stimulate information overload in the absence of actual information. Fox News is discovering new frontiers in polling: “How long would you wait in line to cast your vote?” MSNBC is frolicking out-of-doors, having thrown up some handsome bunting in Rockefeller Plaza and sent out people dressed as donkeys and elephants to pat at one another with furry paws—and now, as I type this, Joe the Plumber’s set to rear his talking head on CNN again, a godsend to TV producers in their time of waiting.