CNN the TV place to be for coverage of amazing, super-tight Iowa race

With a caucus vote so close that the cable channels had to wait until all the votes were finally tallied at 2:34 a.m. Wednesday to declare a winner, Iowa was no place to be Tuesday night for media amateurs and ideologues.

Which is to say there was only one TV place to be: CNN.

Forget all the technological razzle-dazzle of "the flick" and a new and improved Magic Wall. Ignore the utterly confusing social-media map and the silliness of virtual "Weebles" to try and explain how caucuses work. You can even cast a cold eye on the seeming cast of thousands of pundits CNN packs its stages with on election nights.

What counted on this night when the vote was so tight that the practice of projecting a winner had to be abandoned was political knowledge and solid journalistic standards of election night reporting. John King, Wolf Blitzer and the men and women reporting and producing Tuesday night's coverage provided both in abundance.

Let me quickly dispense with MSNBC and Fox, the Tuesday night pretenders.

All you need to know about MSNBC's performance is that its anchor Rachel Maddow fell for a hoax and reported information that wasn't true. She said Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson was dropping his bid and endorsing Ron Paul. She later retracted that.

I won't linger on this embarrassment, but I urge you to check out the video of it below. Pay attention to one of her pathetic colleagues saying, "that will happen," when she retracts -- as if it's no big deal.

I'm sorry, but that doesn't happen to journalists. No one at CNN reported the hoax, because they actually verify information before they put it on the air.

I can't wait for the next batch of "Lean Forward" ads from MSNBC with Maddow talking about journalism -- a discipline she appears to have spent not one day formally studying or practicing prior to becoming a show host and election-night anchor on MSNBC.

As for Fox, at 10:20 p.m. (ET), co-anchor Megyn Kelly told viewers that the numbers Fox News was showing on the screen were "our best guess-timates" -- the kind of numbers that would be based on exit polls and projections.

But they weren't "guess-timates," they were the actual hard-count vote totals -- and the difference Tuesday between "guess-timates" and actual vote totals was night and day, since the the vote was so close a call could not be made between Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney until all the votes were counted.

A minute later, co-anchor Brett Baier had to correct Kelly without sounding like he was pointing out that the woman sitting next to him didn't know what the numbers she was reporting actually meant.

"Those are the real numbers," Baier told those foolish enough to be watching Fox.

Those wise enough to be watching CNN, on the other hand, saw King at the top of his game -- and that is something to behold.

King was in a league of his own going so far inside the county-by-county numbers of Iowa that he looked more like a musician fingering an instrument and losing himself in its sounds than an anchorman working a touch screen. And I loved the immediacy of the way in which the Caucus Cams took us inside the process that produced those numbers at six sites in Iowa during the early part of the evening.

King was in such a zone that even his off-the-cuff, hip-shot analyses were on the money.

At about 10:35 p.m., Jessica Yellin, CNN's White House correspondent, did a report on what Team Obama was saying about the Iowa vote. She reported them saying in part essentially that the vote shows Romney to be a "weak" candidate because he didn't get 45 percent of the vote.

As Yellin finished her report, Blitzer tossed to King at the wall for more county-by-county vote analyses, but before he did that, King couldn't help commenting on the "spin cycle" out of the White House and how Team Obama knew perfectly well there was no way Romney was ever going to get 45 percent.

It was a perfect complement to the report from Yellin, who in her reportorial role, could not simultaneously report and deconstruct the spin from the White House.

And it looked like little more than an off-the-cuff, reflex reaction by King, who was already turning back to the wall as he offered his analysis on the Obama spin.

For all the people on its stage Tuesday night, CNN was wise enough to ride Blitzer and King often and hard down the homestretch of this historic night.

(UPDATE 2:20 a.m.) After signing off long enough to brush my teeth in hopes of going to bed, I am back online and watching one of the strangest election night endings I have ever seen.

Folks on the CNN set, led by Anderson Cooper, have been acting loopy for about an hour now. I can understand it, but it is not professional with so much at stake. Erin Burnett and Piers Morgan aren't helping matters.

But what really matters is that Blitzer and King, the adults on the stage, have two precinct workers named Edith and Carolyn on the phone live from Clinton County, and they are providing CNN with new figures that give Romney the victory over Santorum by a razor thin margin.

The plainspoken Clinton County chairwoman, who was apparently awakened by an enterprising CNN political director trying to track down missing votes, says her figures were submitted to the state about six hours earlier, which is even stranger.

The live phone call is nothing if not real and, let's just say, grassroots. One minute, the chairwoman is interrupting King as he tries to sort things out, the next she is going over the math of her vote count out loud and sounding more confused by the second.

But Blitzer and King are doing exactly what first-rate reporters do in a such a confusing situation: methodically, trying to get the facts straight. And the two women in Iowa are clearly trying to discharge their civic duty honorably -- not matter what time it is. Bravo for the folks on both ends of the phone line for trying to force the Iowa GOP to finally get its act together and announce a winner.

(Update 2:34 a.m.) The Iowa GOP chair just announced that Romney won by 8 votes.

What an amazing night of TV politics.

 

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