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Column: Sleep-deprived, map-numbed TV journalists revive to cover Biden win, U.S. celebrations

CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer calls the election for former Vice President Joe Biden.
CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer calls the election for former Vice President Joe Biden.
(CNN)

Any grievance I may have ever felt about the discrepancy between the salaries of print and television journalists vanished on Friday night.

Well into the fourth solid day of what is traditionally a one-night process, anchors, correspondents and guest commentators on every news network were people trapped in a living nightmare. And not just any nightmare — one of those extra special kinds during which you “wake” only to realize, as the relief washing over you turns back to dread, that this is not real morning, it is just another level of bad dream.

Friday night, CNN’s John King and MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki were at least 36 hours past their expiration dates, God bless them. For hours they’d been steeped in frenzied yet intricate dissections of Pennsylvania, Arizona and Georgia voting districts as small batches of votes came in, continually expected to do simple math in real time (never a fair request of any journalist, especially one operating on three hours’ sleep).

Then, as pressure mounted for networks to call the election already, they were forced to justify their caution by explaining the details of their statistical analysis (also never a fair demand of any journalist, especially when some audience members were operating on three hours’ sleep).

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When not desperately turning things over to these, as my Times colleague Matt Brennan recently dubbed them, “chartthrobs,” the anchors at CNN, MSNBC and Fox were reduced to simply throwing to one another. Hours trudged by without anything remotely passing as “news” to report — there are only so many ways to say “well, it’s still pretty close, Brian”— and, though stopping short of discussing whether “Ted Lasso” or “The Queen’s Gambit” made better election-week viewing, coverage pretty much devolved into a loop of “doesn’t look good for Trump” commentary and attempts to appear alert.

The entire country was waiting but TV anchors had to do it on camera, without the benefits of comfy fleece, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups or booze. Those folks earned their money.

Kamala Harris will be the first female vice president, as well as the first Black and Asian American person to occupy that post.

They also earned the ebullience of Saturday morning.

When Wolf Blitzer, his hands filled with mysterious papers (his resignation? his last will and testament?), made CNN the first news organization to project that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris had won Pennsylvania, and were therefore officially our new president- and vice president-elect, many prayers were answered. Including “Dear God, please let these people on TV finally get some sleep.”

But no! Suddenly every anchor, correspondent and special guest was filled with fresh energy — look y’all, actual news! — some of it quite emotional. CNN’s Van Jones spoke, and wept, for many when he said “Well, it’s easier to be a parent this morning. … It’s easier to tell your kids, ‘Character matters, being a good person matters.’” MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, who went into quarantine on Friday after being exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19, laughed in a way that could be almost described as giddy as she described, via remote feed, how she heard the news while “dust-busting.” Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, announcing the Biden and Harris as winners on Fox, appeared to go out of their way to negate reports that Fox anchors had been instructed to refrain from referring to Biden and Harris as president- and vice president-elect.

On-the-ground coverage, which for days has been toggling between Trump supporters yelling “keep counting” and revelers in Philadelphia and other cities, moved its focus firmly and amazedly to celebrations breaking out all over the country. First in Philadelphia — Pennsylvania being the state that put Biden and Harris over 270 electoral votes — then, as the day wore on, to New York, Atlanta and Washington, where thousands of Biden supporters gathered on the site where, a few months ago, Black Lives Matter protesters were shot with tear gas to allow President Trump a nationally embarrassing photo op.

“Like no celebration I have ever seen in Washington, D.C,” CNN’s Jim Acosta said of Saturday’s jubilation, throwing to reporter Vivian Salama, who interviewed many families who had brought their young children.

“I wanted my daughters to see that a woman can make it to the White House,” said one woman.

Michelle Obama, Lady Gaga and others celebrated on social media after Sen. Kamala Harris was named America’s first Black, Asian American and female vice president-elect.

Throughout the day’s coverage, there were many mentions of the president’s apparent refusal to concede and his threats to pursue litigation involving the ballot count, but for the first time in more than four years, Trump was not the main topic of conversation. The feeling of reprieve, as well as the anchors’, analysts’, reporters’ and pundits’ obvious glee over being hauled onto firm ground after four days of treading water, were palpable.

For months, Trump’s continual and, frankly, unconscionable attempts to cast a shadow over this election were remarkably effective. As with so many of Trump’s outrageous pronouncements, news organizations were forced to spend a lot of time addressing his attempts to derail mail-in voting and then the counting of those mail-in votes. But while that slowed, it did not stop with Biden’s win.

“The day will come when I don’t have to read you Donald Trump’s tweet,” said MSNBC’s Ali Velshi, before reading Trump’s post-election tweet in which he claimed he had won the election by “A LOT.” “But he is still president.”

Not, however, for much longer. And with Biden winning at least 279 electoral college votes and leading the popular vote by, thus far, almost 5 million, the president’s threats and general petulance have become less newsworthy. A huge relief to many journalists, a visible relief to those on television. It is difficult to report, day in and day out, on a president acting so dishonorably.

Now, instead of a bunch of arcane numbers and conflicting protesters outside ballot processing centers, TV news could show crowds of Americans celebrating — some, as in Philly, cheerfully and peaceably overwhelming Trump supporters who were still protesting the results. Everywhere, crowds sprouted and continued to grow ahead of Biden’s victory speech, set for 5 p.m. Pacific; whether filmed on the ground or via drone, the vibe felt more New Year’s Eve than election day.

On beat, off beat, line dances and voguing — people across the country are pouring out into the streets to dance.

“Very unique experience in my time covering American politics,” said Gary Tuchman of CNN as he threaded his way through exultant crowds in Atlanta, “and I’ve been covering American politics for a long time.”

It was infectious to watch and clearly to cover, though back in the studio, there was a concerted attempt to take a deep cleansing breath and get back on track. After hearing that most of the revelers in New York’s Times Square were wearing masks, CNN’s Anderson Cooper felt the need to point out that nevertheless, they were “clearly not socially distancing.”

Coming from the man who just two days ago reached way beyond the end of his rope to compare Trump’s most recent litany of lies about the election to watching “an obese turtle on its back in the sun,” Cooper’s brief admonition was a sign that, in more ways that one, the news cycle is finally returning to normal.

And with any luck, those anchors, correspondents, commentators and chartthrobs can finally get a good night’s sleep.


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