Election Reporters Could Use a Break ... a Hurricane, Maybe?

I am not a reporter. I talk about reporters on television. I scold, praise, explain — but I do not talk about the who, what, where, when, why and how of news events. Not anymore.

I used to, though, and as an NBC News correspondent in the seventies and eighties I covered everything from civil rights to women’s rights to gay rights to drug abuse to environmental abuse to tax reform to military spending to swine flu. I was in London for the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer and saw the masses go wild; I was in Nebraska for a Cornhusker football game and saw a bathroom with a "Go, Big Red!" toilet seat. I delivered obituaries for Arthur Godfrey and Hubert Humphrey and Eubie Blake; I sang with John Cougar Mellencamp; I skipped lunch with the perpetually-fasting Dick Gregory.

But never, never did I report on anything like the recount of votes in Florida, and my heart — not to mention today’s column — goes out to those who do. It seems to me the most difficult of tales to tell, for three reasons.

First, much of the information is stupifyingly complex, beyond the grasp of the ordinary man or woman on the beat: court decisions, challenges to those decisions, suits and threatened suits, all of them convolutedly-worded and -reasoned. The precedents seem unprecedented, the possible outcomes ill-defined.

Second, no sooner does a reporter gather his information than he is set upon by partisans wanting to translate it for him. I think of those scenes in old movies when the hero is agonizing over an important decision and over his shoulders, courtesy of the primitive special effects department, appear an angel and the devil. Except that in this case it is a Republican spinmeister over one shoulder and his Democratic counterpart over the other. "Say this." "Say that." "It means this." "It means that." "Gore won." "Bush won." "Can Clinton serve another term?"

Third, the information comes at the poor reporter in torrents. Well, maybe it’s more like trickles, and it is the spin that comes in torrents. Either way, there is so much fact and opinion and conjecture and prediction for the reporter to process and so little time to do it before his next appearance on the air. He is like a student cramming for tests, and the tests are live shots that come up every few minutes.

The result of all this, of course, can be journalism at less than its best. There have been outright mistakes, superficial analyses, premature conclusions. But there has also been a surprising amount of reportage that serves its viewers well, not only informing them but sometimes even enlightening them. The reporters at these times ride their unruly quantities of information like bronco-busters taming especially ill-tempered mounts.

Bret Baier is one of the correspondents covering the Florida recount for Fox News Channel. On Fox News Watch last week, I talked to him about his duties, and near the end of our conversation I mentioned that the last time I had seen him on the air so much he was reporting on a hurricane, nature at its most unpredictable. Now he was reporting on the 2000 president campaign, democracy at its most unpredictable. Which, I asked, would he rather cover?

Baier smiled. The recount is tough, he said, but it’s epochal, history-making. I’m proud to be a part of it.

Really? I asked.

Really, he said.

Then he admitted that there have been moments, just a few, when he longed for the relative peace of seventy-mile-an-hour winds and driving rains and houses sailing past him on the street. It isn’t often, Baier realizes, that you see a spinmeister out in a storm.