Just about all polls point to a nailbiter of an election night on Tuesday, which means that for the flood of media coverage the onus will be on making close calls rather than making maximum use of commentary.
Despite deploying new sets, unveiling all sorts of new ways to crunch results and including star anchors and reporters throughout the night, some executives say they are entering the final day knowing that getting it right will be more important than getting it first. As much as the debacle of 2000 is often cited as the example to avoid --- when major news organizations called Florida for Al Gore, then for George Bush, then put it back into the tossup category --- the temptation this cycle is from social media, where tidbits of misinformation have occasionally seeped into coverage as fact.
Sam Feist, Washington bureau chief and senior vice president at CNN, said, “Being first is not one of my goals. It is not part of my thinking. I just want to be right. It is far more important to be right than to be first.”
Echoing his sentiments was Ingrid Ciprian-Matthews, vice president of CBS News: “Accuracy comes way before trying to get it first. It’s the way we carry out our news business on CBS on a regular basis.”
Cabler CNN has assembled what Feist calls an “extraordinary team of statisticians and political scientists” to monitor the results, as well as field reporting teams of 25 to 30 correspondents who are deployed in the battleground states. The emphasis is on access to people who are counting the ballots --- like board of elections officials and Secretary of States offices --- something that came in handy in the wee hours of the Iowa caucus vote. That was when reporters tracked down Edith Pfeffer and Carolyn Tallet, members of the GOP in Clinton County, Iowa, and went live on CNN to try to clear up a voting inconsistency that, for that night anyway, called the race for Mitt Romney.
“You can’t set a value on boots on the ground in a situation like this,” Feist says.
CNN’s coverage will be based on its new set in Washington, which was designed with election night in mind. It features two “magic walls,” one that will show exit polls and another that will show county-by-county vote data, along with “virtual studio” to present a “virtual Senate,” depicting the chamber and its balance of power. The idea is to deploy technology that are “helping to tell a story for the viewers.” “No holograms,” Feist said.
Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper will be in Washington, with Candy Crowley in Boston and Erin Burnett in Ohio, as well as John King at the magic wall, among other deployments. All told, CNN is planning 40 straight hours of live coverage.
CBS, on the other hand, will avoid the use of tech add-ons during the broadcast. “We’re not big into gadgets,” Ciprian-Matthews told Variety. “Reporting the stories and the actual coverage is much more important than the toys.”
CBS Evening News anchor and managing editor Scott Pelley is slated to lead the net’s seven hours of election coverage from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. ET in Gotham, though CBS notes it is prepared to go later into the night should the race call for extended coverage. Pelley will be joined by a journo team including “Fact The Nation” anchor Bob Schieffer, “CBS This Morning” co-host Norah O’Donnell and CBS News political director John Dickerson. The broadcast network also will have correspondents reporting from battleground states throughout the night.
Over on Fox News, coverage will be anchored by Megyn Kelly and Bret Baier, with Martha MacCallum reporting on exit polls, Bill Hemmer breaking down the results on the electronic “Bill-board,” John Roberts at the Romney campaign headquarters in Boston and Ed Henry and Wendell Goler with Obama’s campaign in Chicago. They, too, will have correspondents deployed in swing states, as well as Eric Shawn reporting on vote fraud issues. For the first time, Fox news Latino will be streamed, with Rick Sanchez hosting. Fox Broadcasting’s election night coverage will be anchored by Shepard Smith.
On top of coverage anchored by Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulus, ABC News will feature updates from partner Univision in swing state Florida, highlighting reaction to the race from the Latino community. The Alphabet overall is putting all hands on deck, providing coverage from Obama and Romney's election headquarters, swing states, and street coverage for real-time civilian reactions. Barbara Walters will give historical context to the race and results and a special election edition of "Nightline" is slated to air at 2:35am ET.
ABC is also pushing strongly into the digital realm this election. Katie Couric will be monitoring social media reaction while Dan Kloeffler will provide updates on Google+ Hangouts across all 50 states. On Wednesday morning, ABC News and Yahoo! will stream a special post-election show at 10 a.m. ET that integrates social media coverage including hashtag analysis and a look at topics resonating with viewers online.
MSNBC’s coverage will be hosted by Rachel Maddow and Chris Matthews, with Chuck Todd offering insight to the vote in the battleground states. Tamron Hall will provide exit poll results, Melissa Harris-Perry will report from Chicago and Chris Jansing will report from Boston. The next morning, “Way Too Early’ and “Morning Joe” will originate from studio 8h at 30 Rock, with “Morning Joe” going before a studio audience. As they did at the conventions, they are staging public events tied to their brand: Starting on Monday, the network is bringing its “MSNBC Experience” to Rockefeller Plaza, with meet-and-greets with MSNBC hosts, button making and free coffee and lattes.
Its corporate sibling NBC News also will have a presence at the plaza, dubbed “Democracy Plaza,” with interactive historical exhibits and electoral artifacts for visitors to see. During the election, NBC will project graphics across the Plaza and ice skating rink including the electoral map and charts explaining election leads.
Senior veep of NBC News Specials Mark Lukasiewicz told Variety “We’ll be on the air as long as wee need to, including going straight into ‘The Today Show’ if necessary.”
“This story is about politics,” Lukasiewicz continued. “Our local NBC stations will be telling the local race, but at the end of the day, the question is who will be the next president.”
Brian Williams anchors coverage, with David Gregory, Todd and Andrea Mitchell. Election director Sheldon Gawiser and his team will determine when NBC News will project a state in the race. “They operate independently from our control room,” noted Lukasiewicz. “They’ve been on the money and have a long experience calling elections. We are comfortable with their expertise and decision making.”
While tech elements will be emphasized Tuesday evening on NBC, Lukasiewicz stated “It’s only so far in it helps tell the story...technology for its own sake isn’t what we’re after.” Todd will utilize augmented reality tools to drill down data and help viewers understand how the vote is breaking down, and how each campaign’s strategy is playing out.
In an era where voting data is available to viewers at their fingertips online, nets like NBC emphasize the important of broadcast news in translating the data into comprehensible coverage that relates to the viewer. “It’s not just about the numbers,” said Lukasiewicz. “You need to understand why voters are voting this way and moving towards 270. One of the key factors on election night isn’t just reporting who won the election, but what the underlying factors were and what was on voters’ minds when they went to the polls.”
Of course, there are many alternatives to the major networks and news channels. Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill anchor coverage on PBS, Al Gore leads coverage on Current and C-SPAN will run results and victory and concession speeches.
“The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report” announced plans to go live on election night on Comedy Central, with a simulcast on MTV’s Times Square Jumbotron. Exactly what content the shows will feature is TBA, although Andrew Sullivan will be a guest on the Colbert show.
By Ted Johnson and A.J. Marechal