Published November 10, 2002
It is not easy these days to write a column that praises journalists. So many people seem so unhappy with the men and women who bring them their news that they will not stand for anything short of denunciation.
And if the author of such a column is employed by a major news organization, it seems that he is lacking in both objectivity and integrity, and is perhaps trading praise for job security.
So be it.
There is nothing that demands more of television news than covering elections: so many races, so many places, so many possible outcomes and so many possible reasons for those outcomes. Yet there is nothing that television news does better. That it gets the facts straight seems accomplishment enough; that it can also put those into perspective under the deadline pressures of election night is little short of a triumph.
And Nov 5, 2002, was, for the most part, a triumph for the TV news business.
Yes, there were moments of embarrassment, journalists stumbling and misquoting and mispronouncing. And yes, there were moments of bias, ABC’s Michel Martin referring to "the kind of voter suppression tactics that Republicans engage in." And, of course, those who disdain the media will concentrate on the lapses rather than the larger picture in assessing how the press performed last Tuesday.
That larger picture, however, was a work of journalistic art, with information having been gathered quickly, presented clearly, and far more often than not analyzed responsibly. It was a work of art all the more impressive because of the pressures on reporters that resulted from the premature exclamations of election night, 2000. Which is to say it was a work of art that, like all great works of art, showed restraint and deliberation in addition to sheer ability.
I have reported on a few elections in my time, although not many; politics is not my forte. But I know what is involved. I know, for instance, the size of the so-called "briefing books" that journalists pore over to prepare for their coverage. They are the size and complexity of encyclopedia volumes, and are as demanding as college finals, for which no grade short of an "A" is satisfactory on election night.
No less voluminous is the knowledge that most anchors are able to bring to their tasks. For some people, it might be too much; the anchor knows, and relates, far more than the casual viewer wants to hear. But for those who are more fervid than casual about their politics, who want to see and study the inner workings of democracy, there is no better vantage point than that which is offered on election night, and no better guide than the network anchors.
In my years as a correspondent for NBC, I would marvel at the information that John Chancellor kept at the tip of his tongue, and could so effortlessly, and relevantly, dispense from his election night anchor desk. I marvel no less today at people like Fox’s Brit Hume, whose knowledge makes even the briefing books seem, well . . . brief.
The controlled pandemonium of an election is, in short, a perfect match for the controlled pandemonium of the TV news business. Last Tuesday’s coverage was the business at its best.
Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT .