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Obama Wins -- Election TV Coverage Does, Too
November 5, 2008  | By David Bianculli

Today on MSNBC's Morning Joe, Joe Scarborough likened last night's Barack Obama victory to another internationally televised event that took place in his lifetime: the moon landing in 1969. That's quite a comparison -- but there's no denying that, last night, the whole world was watching.

The networks, well aware of the disputed coverage and results of the previous two elections, took that responsibility seriously. For the most part, they made no sudden moves, no hasty calls, no egregious mistakes -- and, at the end, allowed the emotion of the event to speak for itself.

Even before the first polls closed, you could get hints that an Obama victory might be in the offing, because of all the talk about "historic." But whether it was Brit Hume at Fox News or Charles Gibson at ABC, the job of the anchor last night was to be just that -- a dragging weight that kept its craft from drifting too far or too fast.

election-bbc-anchor.jpg election-grant-park-bbc-ope.jpg

In the opening hour of coverage, notably, the most blatant conversation about a presumed Democratic victory came from BBC America, which also was the first to show live coverage of the first audience members streaming into Chicago's Grant Park to take their place and wait for their candidate to speak. The U.S. networks were keeping cards closer to their vests, though some of the analysts clearly were chomping at the bit to break loose and pontificate.

The echoes of the 1960s were there, as the night wore on. Grant Park, the site of police brutality at the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention, now was the site of a huge, Woodstock-like crowd of shiny happy people. Woodstock, of course, was in the summer of 1969 -- as was Neil Armstrong's walk on the moon, which was televised live just before 11 p.m. ET and electrified the world.

Obama's election, last night, was televised just after 11 p.m., and Scarborough was right -- it was a pivotal, and an emotional, moment in American, and world, history.


As for the coverage, almost everybody had a high tech gimmick, whether the touch-screen maps popularized by CNN's John King (and now in use everywhere from ABC to Fox News), or the goofy virtual set on which NBC's Ann Curry collided with seemingly 3-D graphics.

I enjoyed working with DirecTV's single-channel overview of eight different news sources, and the ease with which you could toggle among them to hear audio or select that channel. But despite that menu screen, and all the bells, whistles, graphics and crawls offered by the various networks, the most welcome and memorable part of last night's coverage was the commentary.

Men and women talking, putting things in perspective. Especially the older people, who could connect this new generation to the Civil Rights era.


Jeff Greenfield and Bob Schieffer at CBS. Tom Brokaw at NBC. Charlie Gibson at ABC. They were wonderful. And the political operatives turned analysts, whether Karl Rove at Fox News or George Stephanopoulos at ABC, steered the conversation towards the right battlegrounds, the key moments, and the meaningful overall perspective.


election-fox-news-karl-rove.jpgInterviews were good, too. The best, perhaps, was with Democratic Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, a black man who told tales of being with Martin Luther King, Jr. and fighting for civil rights, and having this happen in his own lifetime. They were great stories, told to the team at ABC before Obama spoke -- and told after he spoke, just as powerfully, on NBC.

Overall, networks were so cautious that Jon Stewart, on Comedy Central, actually called some states before CNN did. And CNN, even with its commendable caution, made the biggest error of the night, one that was caught, but not explained, by Wolf Blitzer. That was when the early returns came in from Florida, and the percentages of the votes for Obama and John McCain added up to a lot less than 100 percent.


Unlike in 2000 and 2004, though, early projections held, and the electoral college votes stacked up early enough to have the race called at 11 p.m., and both McCain and Obama able to hit the stage, before their respective supporters, before midnight.

Those speeches were memorable, in part, for their genuinely conciliatory, openly emotional nature. McCain raised his hands to stifle boos from the crowd after he mentioned Obama's name, and Obama's speech was punctuated by reaction shots of tearful onlookers, from ordinary supporters to Jesse Jackson and Oprah Winfrey.

election-elected-president.jpgIt was a dramatic end to the most dramatic TV story of 2008. And for once, the candidates and the media all managed to cross the finish line with their dignity intact.









Adam Bomb 1701 said:

I didn't watch the election coverage. At the age of 54, I'm tired of the whole political thing. I tried (for reasons I don't know) to watch "27 Dresses," a very tedious chick flick on HBO, but I dozed off. Maybe I should have watched "In A Mirror Darkly" from the "Star Trek Alternate Realities" DVD set my girlfriend gave me for my birthday. That episode is way cooler than any political stuff or chick flick.

Comment posted on November 5, 2008 11:09 AM

ceolaf said:

Mr. Bianculli,

I hope that media watchers/critics call the news networks and network news for the racism their coverage of the Obama victory.

* Obama clearly did not run on as a black candidate, or as on black/urban issues. He ran as a Democrat, ran as an American. One might even say that he ran away from being a black candidate.

* Obama did not win on the back of the expanded black vote. Even without their increased turnout and support, he would have won. That is, average black turnout and average black support of Democratic candidate would not have prevented his win.

* Obama won with Black voters, but also with Latino voters, first time voters, young voters, women voter, gay voters, straight voters, Jewish, Catholic, "other" and "none" religiom voters. He won among straight voters, too. Those making over $250,000/year and those making less than $50,000/year.

In summary, Obama won among all Americans, and he did it without clining to identity politics -- something that Hillary could not get a grasp on.

He is not a member of the civil rights movement of the 1960's. He did not run their way, and they cannot claim responsiblity for his victory.

Showing Harlem and Ebinezer as much as the networks did, focusing on blacks in their picture and their analysis misses too much of this story. It was divisise and belittling.

No question this was an extraodrinarily meaningful victory for minorities; he is out first minority president. It is a victory for non-WASPs, given the simple fact of his non-European/non-Christian name. And this victory means a huge amount for blacks in this country, be they African-American, Afro-Carribean or simply African. No question.

But the coverage made that black story the dominent theme, both in their explicitly with their words and implicitly with their images. In reality, it was bigger than that, larger than that, more expansive than that.

In fact, we are no less racist a country today than we were yesterday. Actually, I worry about backlash, perhaps making this country even a bit more racist in the next few years. We have structural problem with race and poverty that Obama's victory does not magically fix. The hard work remains ahead of us.

But the networks and news networks took the easier story, the naive story, and created a divisive story.

Last night Obama said, "It's the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled - Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been a collection of Red States and Blue States: we are, and always will be, the United States of America."

When we met him, four years ago, he was saying the same thing.

Not a black victory, but an American victory.

Comment posted on November 5, 2008 12:35 PM

Toby O'B said:

The goofiest new addition to the technological side of the coverage had to be CNN's use of holograms, but it'll probably be the wave of the future. Still, for the time being it just lent itself to 'Star Wars'/"Help me, Obi-Wolf" jokes.

Of the electoral maps, I liked Chuck Todd's the best on MSNBC, but John King certainly has mastered the technigues used on his "magic wall".

As an observer on how real world events are translated into dramatic use in sitcoms and dramas, I'll be interested to see how Obama's presidency is presented in TV fiction over the next four years....

Comment posted on November 5, 2008 1:01 PM

Joseph Palmer said:

Glad to note that you watch "Morning Joe" on MSNBC. He was a professional conservative alternative to the amateurish "Fox and Friends". In the final weeks of campaign coverage, "Friends" went totally in support of Senator McCain and gleefully engaged in heresay and anti-Obama innuendo.

Comment posted on November 5, 2008 3:05 PM

David McCullough said:

aloha david,

Thanks for your commentary and congratulations on your one year anniversary also! Many of us have waited for years for a victory like Obama's and the beginning of the end of eight years of failed policies, politics of hatred and division and endless war.

You provide a valuable service and perspective. Thank you and congratulations, keep it up!

Regards to you and family,


Comment posted on November 5, 2008 4:16 PM

Gregg B said:

In response to Saturated from yesterday's blog entry:
This was the most interesting and historic election we have had at least in my lifetime. I have watched countless hours of television and youtube videos related to this election. The name of this blog is TVWORTHWATCHING. This entire election was played out on television. Some of the debates had the highest ratings ever. I can tell you they were worth watching. The political commentary was worth watching. Rachel Maddow and Campbell Brown are certainly worth watching. SNL was worth watching. And Jon Stewart I consider to be be required watching. It has been the fabric of television for the past two years. Better than any prime time television. If you did not include it in your Blog, David you would not be true to what it is about, TV Worth Watching. Thank you David. Keep up the good work. I will continue to visit your site everyday.

Comment posted on November 5, 2008 4:36 PM

Greg Kibitz said:

Up to election day, I worked so hard working as a highly involved member of my electorate, pestering my despised candidates and their handlers, supporting my beloved candidates and their causes, writing letters to the editor, and making choices by absentee balloting in advance, that by like 10 pm of election night, I had fallen deep asleep on the couch before Stewart and Colbert had even gotten very far in their alternate coverage. Thus, I missed the entire 11 pm pinnacle of the event and both final speeches (which I still have yet to even see in their entirety).

It was not until I woke again with the coverage on Comedy Central still in full force (2nd repeat in DVR buffer at like 2-3 am) that I got the great news about the most important of all offices, as well as about many local and state offices and proposals of great import to me, and then the very bad news about far too many others...

So the day was one of mixed results for me, and the thing that may affect me most, the losing of my home, is still in the hands of the very same folks that made that possible from day one, and that is surely not change I can believe in!
Illigitimi non carborundum (I removed a chunk of your comment for length, and so I didn't have to worry about libel laws -- but I appreciate your passion, your presence, and, all things considered, your wariness regarding local vs. national results. -- David B.)

Comment posted on November 8, 2008 11:45 AM
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