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Missing Iowa numbers send CNN spiraling into crisis.

CNN political analyst Mark Preston and CNN political director David Chalian on air awaiting Iowa caucus results on Monday Feb. 3, 2020.
CNN political analyst Mark Preston and CNN political director David Chalian try to calm each other down. Screenshot via CNN.com

The app may have broken, and the hotline failed, but the most visible meltdown in the first nominating contest of the 2020 election was all CNN’s.

Caucus night started off well! Holding down the fort in the studio, Wolf Blitzer threw to Jake Tapper, Dana Bash, Jeff Zeleny, and the rest of the gang in Iowa, where they had fanned out across the state to bring viewers a taste of the caucus process. There were the people in all their glory—in gymnasiums and auditoriums and lobbies, clustering for their candidates, raising their hands to be counted by diligent precinct captains who were too busy and focused to mug for the camera. Democracy in action, I told my children! We were moved.

Soon, very soon, we’d have the results of all this action. They’d be trickling in any minute now, Wolf said, on this momentous night. But then they didn’t trickle, like, at all. And Wolf started getting antsy, or maybe a little agitated. And then CNN totally lost it.

At first you might not have noticed it happening. Wolf would throw to his colleagues in the field with his usual Wolf demeanor, and they would do their bits. But each time the camera came back to him, he would say something to CNN political director David Chalian like, “By this time in 2016, we had 80 percent of the results in, and tonight we have none!” I didn’t count how many times he expressed exasperation about not having the results he had grown accustomed to having, but a conservative estimate would be eight. What the hell was going on??, he wondered. And because he was wondering it, I had to wonder it too.

With the news team starting to get desperate from the lack of news, it was time for the network’s pundits to chip in some opinions about information they didn’t have. At first, the panel did its best to fill the time with inane stories of Iowa caucus hijinks past, but eventually they too lapsed into panic mode, with Van Jones at one point just reading a tweet off his phone that he said was from a precinct captain who couldn’t get his app to work. Was this person actually a precinct captain, or just a troublemaker online? Jones admitted he had no idea, but that didn’t stop him from reading the tweet live on air.

The energy was infectious! Crisis coverage is what CNN does best, and the absence of news itself became a crisis. Soon, a CNN reporter was quoting an Elizabeth Warren insider who said that the longer this night goes on, “they worry the process loses credibility.” Aha! The people of Iowa had just watched one another choose candidates publicly, with the numbers written down on big sheets of paper, but if the numbers didn’t reach CNN, perhaps none of it had really happened at all. Things are taking longer than expected, and we all know what that means. Don’t just take it from me and the Warren person and CNN.

I’m not saying the Iowa Democratic Party had to call an emergency meeting of campaign representatives to calm their fears because CNN caused widespread panic with its coverage, but I’m also not saying the Iowa Democratic Party did not have to call an emergency meeting of campaign representatives to calm their fears because CNN had caused widespread panic with its coverage.

What about the other networks? I honestly have no idea. I only watch CNN—it’s the best!—but maybe other media outlets were also stoking and spreading and validating the election paranoia that now lies deep within each of us (or right on the surface). But I bet that CNN was the only network to actually impede the caucus reporting process by causing the party’s hotline to hang up on a precinct captain who had been waiting patiently on hold to report his results, which is what we were all watching CNN for to begin with.

By the time you are reading this post, we might have the results. Or we might not. We might know what happened to the app and the hotline, or we might not. We might have a tweet from Donald Trump sending us the same message that CNN sent all night—you can’t trust this process, something’s fishy—or we might not. (Just kidding.) But no matter what, it’s a comfort to know that CNN will always be here, filling an information vacuum with hot air and letting us know that the real problem with the Iowa caucus reporting getting screwed up is that the candidates need to get on their flights to New Hampshire immediately, or else this whole thing’s gonna break down.