Press Box

The Russert to Judgment

So now the TV pundits tell us an Obama nomination is certain.

Tim Russert 

About 40 hours ago, the klieg-baked TV anchors and commentators started shaking the sweat from their brows to declare that the race for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination was over.

Jim Rutenberg collects their election night wisdom in today’sNew York Times:

“We now know who the Democratic nominee’s going to be, and no one’s going to dispute it.”
—Tim Russert on MSNBC”I think the Clinton people know the game is almost up.”
—David Gergen (the master of political androgyny) on CNN”I think there’s an increasing presumption tonight that Obama’s going to be the nominee.”
—Chris Wallace on Fox News Channel

In the early morning, CBS correspondent Bob Schieffer added, “Basically, Maggie, this race is over,” and ABC’s George Stephanopoulos said the same: “This nomination fight is over.” Not to be left out, the new issue of Time magazine, just hitting my desk, depicts Barack Obama on the cover with the headline, “And the Winner* Is …” The small type at the bottom reads, “*Really, we’re pretty sure this time.”

Were the latest election returns so conclusive that the TV correspondents couldn’t have arrived at the same conclusion days or weeks ago? It’s not as if Obama’s landslide in North Carolina and Clinton’s Indiana squeaker sent a flood of superdelegates to the game-ending, presumptive, and indisputably victorious Obama. The only super-D to dismount Clinton and climb atop Obama this week is Virginia’s Jennifer McClellan. The Kentucky super-Ds pledged to Clinton are holding their ground, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader, awaiting their state’s May 20 primary. Obama has a very nice lead in pledged delegates, popular vote, total number of states won, and dollars in the bank, but neither candidate has enough votes to win. So while it may be over, it can’t be over-over until the superdelegates speak, and so far they ain’t saying nothing.

My intention here is less to light a candle for the Clinton candidacy—which remains the long shot it was even after her Pennsylvania primary win in late April—than to give Russert and company the hot foot for their dramatic exuberance.

Whether covering politics, the stock market, or sports, television reporters live inside the moment, and the fundamental questions before them are always “who’s winning, who’s losing, and why” (which just happens to be the tag line of Slate’s “Politics” department). If a TV reporter can peg a winner, he will. If no winners are in attendance, he’ll identify a loser. If no winner or losers can be found, he’ll drum up that somebody has “gained” momentum. The medium doesn’t reward procrastinators or qualifiers.

Although TV reporters may expect thing X to happen while they’re on the air, they plan for contingencies Y and Z. Before going on camera, they stuff their cheeks with a huge assortment of pithy insights so that, no matter what happens, they have something smart to mouth. The most excitable of the TV news chipmunks was usually Dan Rather, whose election night scripts—”Bush is sweeping through the South like a big wheel through a cotton field”—covered events that ultimately may have occurred only in parallel universes.

When Russert exclaimed the inevitability of Obama’s nomination, it was an act of recall, not an act of cognition. At the moment he bestowed the nomination upon Obama, his network had yet to call Indiana for Clinton. Shuffling his mental notes and calculating the possibility of an Obama victory in Indiana, how could he resist speaking the words he had composed in his head two months ago?

Russert and company expected Obama to win North Carolina and expected Clinton to win Indiana, so they weren’t reading that much into his landslide and the narrowness of her victory. They’ve wanted to say that Obama has cinched the nomination since his March victory in the Mississippi primary—or before. None had the stones to say it with so many primaries left on the calendar. That would be read as too “elitist,” too “anti-democracy.” Russert gave them the stones.


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