Networks dazed and confused

By JOHN BLOOM, UPI Reporter-at-Large  |  Nov. 6, 2002 at 4:48 PM
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NEW YORK, Nov. 6 (UPI) -- Were the Tuesday night election commentators exhausted, stunned or just plain bored? Normally you have to go to an opium den to find this much torpor.

Of course, if you were watching ABC, CBS, NBC or Fox, you might not have even known there was an election on. Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather poked their heads in for a few short segments around 10 p.m., puffed out a few cheap bromides and then vanished. ("The Democrats must have Minnesota!" observed Rather. "Should we call this the Bushification of America?") And during the most suspenseful part of the evening, when about eight seats were up for grabs, NBC had Jay Leno interviewing Serena Williams, CBS had Faith Hill appearing on Letterman, ABC showed a thrilling episode of "The Caroline Rhea Show," and Fox ran a "Just Shoot Me" rerun.

So the major networks were non-players, but even the 24-hour cable news channels were strangely reserved. Perhaps they just felt sheepish. It's been quite a few years since Vegas bookmakers made odds on elections, but if the networks had to take money on their official spreads Tuesday night, they would have all been out of business by Wednesday morning.

Oddly enough, they were proud of that fact. The only network that did exit polls was Fox News -- and they did exit polls that stunk. They STILL couldn't call the races early. All the others were crowing about their "no exit poll" policies, taking us instead into underground bunkers where armies of laptop nerds pored over data and refused to declare winners. Meanwhile, the wiseguys -- most of them working for the Republican Party -- were all over the field, doing such accurate exit polling that the President was making congratulatory calls to the victors a full two hours before any network would say the guy won.

In Vegas the bookies always lose the most money on the small games no one else cares about. So the Georgia Senate race was the equivalent of Cal State-Irvine playing Gonzaga University, and the networks had it so wrong that they kept stumbling over the pronunciation of the winner's name: Saxby Chambliss.

Not that they were any more astute on the marquee games. Ron Kirk's chances of winning the Texas Senate seat seemed doomed even with just 2 percent of the polls in, and yet they kept stretching out the call, saying, "Well, Fort Worth is not in yet, and San Antonio is not in yet, and Kirk has 93 percent African-American support" -- and meanwhile the ticker on John Cornyn's increasing lead was flying faster than an Atlantic City taxicab meter.

Normally with this many close races -- almost ALL of them going the Republican way -- you would expect to see the bursting pupils of the various anchors as they brooded over the battlefield carnage and then hip-hip-hoorayed the scarred but victorious warriors. Instead we mostly got stultifying civics lectures.

Most of them missed entirely the biggest story of the night. Harvey L. Pitt waited until the EXACT moment the polls closed to resign as chairman of the SEC. How cynical is that? Especially since he was insisting right up until the last moment that he had the confidence of the President.

They also short-changed the second surprise story of the election -- the 11th-hour decision by a Little Rock federal judge to let the polls stay open for an extra 90 minutes in Pulaski County, which we Arkansans know is not only the most populous county in Arkansas -- really the ONLY populous county in Arkansas -- but also the only solid Democratic county in the state.

Instead they were mostly locked into their prefab panel-of-experts formats. Aaron Brown, who has such a low-key "Oh, whatever" manner that he seems in danger of falling asleep, headed the crew at CNN, but should have turned over the mike more often to animated political junkie Jeff Greenfield. They made their first call at 7:30 -- Jay Rockefeller for the Senate seat in West Virginia, where he was opposed by an independent candidate who wouldn't be recognized if he used his last name at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting -- then tentatively called Jeb Bush in

Florida and Frank Lautenberg in New Jersey, which were both no-brainers.

The only time the CNN coverage perked up was when they cut away to Larry King, who interviewed Bob Woodward, then John McCain, with King doing his usual bangup job of cutting right to the heart of the matter -- getting Woodward to talk about why the control of the Senate is overrated, and McCain to talk about Max Cleland's debacle in Georgia.

The gals on the CNN panel were the laconic Paula Zahn, looking a little out of place, and the always sensible Judy Woodruff, who can normally liven up any show but seemed to get sucked into Aaron Brown's teddy-bear funk. (Where was Connie Chung, by the way? Wouldn't this be the night to trot out your purported superstars?)

If anyone would be expected to take over the show Tuesday, it would be the staunch Tories of the Fox News Channel. But watching their all-male panel of five was like sitting next to lobbyists having steak and lobster dinners at the Mayflower Hotel. Mort Kondracke on polling, Bill Kristol on black turnout, Juan Williams on why terrorism was not an issue -- they all had their little set-pieces, which often seemed unrelated to the events swirling around them. At 9:30 they cut away to a speech to his supporters by Jim Talent, the Senate candidate in Missouri, and stayed with him in spite of Talent saying virtually nothing of interest to anyone except his wife and secretary.

But there was one place on the dial where life forms were discovered: MSNBC. Chris Matthews, of "Hardball" fame, was feisty, opinionated, aggressive, lively, and filled up the schedule with so many interviews -- Katherine Harris from Florida, Rudolph Giuliani from New York, Dennis Hastert from Illinois -- that there was never a dull moment, especially since he was seated next to Peggy Noonan, Reagan's speechwriter and Bush's crowing partisan supporter.

Matthews was Video No-Doz for those of us who were about to give up. "I had Saxby Chambliss on 'Hardball' and wasn't too impressed. How do you explain this?" Later he's the first to start screaming about the Harvey Pitt hypocrisy. By 11 p.m. he's made calls on 20 of the 24 key races. ("I would say someone has badly underestimated President Bush's popularity.") He grills the diehard Democrats relentlessly. "Who's going to pay the price? Terry McAuliffe? Tom Daschle?" And then he all but openly scoffs at their lame excuses. ("Democrats are doing quite well at the local level," says one.)

By midnight he's making Newt Gingrich references. By 12:45 he's scoring laughs with a great analysis of the California governor's race. One guy's a fool, the other guys a greedy sellout, so "When nobody cares, Republicans vote." By 1 he's calling the evening "The Trifecta!" for Bush.

In other words, he seemed like the only guy who was keenly aware of every up-to-the-minute trend, and the only time he let the show lapse into dry precinct-level analysis was when it really mattered -- as in South Dakota, where you had a time-zone difference affecting how quickly the western part of the state was reported, as well as possible ramifications from the Indian-reservation vote.

Matthews also had the chutzpah to openly bait his colleagues at the other networks. "I saw Brokaw interviewing Jeb Bush earlier. Do you think he knew he was interviewing 'The Greatest Generation'?"

I kept expecting to nod off and check the final results in the morning, but Matthews kept bringing me back. Just when you thought he couldn't top himself -- up pops his interview with ... Arnold Schwarzenegger! Arnold was talking about his pet "Proposition 49," to fund "after-school" programs in all California schools, but of course Matthews was goading him about his rumored 2006 bid for the governor's job.

On this weird night, Matthews sounded like the only guy who understood TV OR politics. "Two weeks ago Jeb Bush was 'my brother Fredo,'" he said. "Now he looks like Sonny Corleone!"

You gotta love that. The man didn't NEED an exit poll.

(John Bloom writes a number of columns for UPI and may be contacted at or through his Web site at Snail mail: P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, Texas 75221.)

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