How Not To Cover An Election

It is very hard to disagree with this damning article from Politico, assessing the current state of cable news in America:

If ever there was a political event to lay bare the partisan ideologies of the cable news media, the Wisconsin recall was it.

MSNBC was blatantly rooting for Tom Barrett to defeat Gov. Scott Walker, even sending union champion Ed Schultz to cover an event with no apologies for the dog he has in the fight. (Earlier tonight, Chris Matthews even told Schultz that if he wasn’t an MSNBC host, he could be head of the AFL-CIO.) When it became clear that Barrett would lose, Schultz looked almost teary eyed. Not long after, the network’s contributors immediately began suggesting that this was, in fact, good news for Obama — who, after all, hadn’t even set foot in Wisconsin — and began attacking Mitt Romney.

Meanwhile, Fox News was blatantly rooting for Gov. Walker, and the moment it became clear that Walker might win, host Sean Hannity called it “a repudiation of big unions,” which did “everything they could do to demonize Scott Walker.” Guest Hugh Hewitt then predicted that, five months from now, Romney would follow Walker just “as Reagan followed Thatcher.” Fox’s Greta Van Susteren later hosted what amounted to a victory celebration for the Republicans.

Given this blatant partisan coverage, it was absolutely impossible to watch either network and weed out any clear understanding of the actual significance of the event, much less what effect it would actually have on the 2012 presidential election.

Out of a mixture of boredom, insomnia and a ravenous (bordering on unhealthy) appetite for US political news, I stayed up until 2AM watching MSNBC’s live coverage of the Wisconsin gubernatorial recall election (MSNBC being the only channel I was able to stream on the internet since our satellite television decided to break at the weekend). And goodness me, the coverage was bad. And by “bad”, I mean really unworthy of a channel that purports to be a television news network rather than a propaganda station.

Don’t get me wrong – I like MSNBC a lot. As the US Republican Party has lurched ever further away from being a centre-right party favouring limited government towards becoming a win-at-all-costs, fear-stoking, hypocritical, economically and historically illiterate party for idiots I have found no small degree of comfort in having my displeasure and frustration validated by the likes of Chris Matthews, Martin Bashir, Rachel Maddow, Al Sharpton and the rest of the MSNBC cast. I think that’s a fine and healthy thing to do in small measures, so long as one does not go too far and close oneself off from divergent opinions and other sources of news. However, at some point – I’m not even precisely sure when – it became okay for news networks to openly cheerlead for certain politicians or parties, not just during the opinion shows but while covering live election events. No pretence at impartiality any more, just open bias toward one or other party throughout the broadcast.

MSNBC dispatched their entertaining and highly watchable anchor Ed Schultz to Wisconsin to cover the results in front of a crowd of union-supporting, pro- Tom Barrett people. After talking up Barrett’s prospects throughout the show, he did not try very hard to conceal his disappointment when Republican incumbent Scott Walker was projected to survive the recall challenge:


At this point it really goes without saying that the Fox News team were up to exactly the same type of shenanigans on their network, before and during the voting:


Of course.

What exactly is wrong – or detrimental to good ratings – with having a lively, spirited but even-handed broadcast while we wait for the results to come in and a victor to be declared, featuring moderated discussions with people from all sides of the political spectrum (so we actually have a chance to learn something rather than just have our existing prejudices reinforced), which could then segue into the usual partisan bombast, in a separately branded show, once the results were announced?

Look, I get it. Conservatives long perceived a bias in the news networks and took to talk radio to find a place where they could hear their opinions reflected in the coverage. Conservative talk radio was eventually augmented by the Fox News Channel, which became so successful that liberals felt that they also needed a channel of their own, at which point MSNBC was hijacked and directed to “lean forward”. CNN tried to maintain an ideological balance and haemorrhaged viewers as a consequence, supposedly validating the “pick a side” approach taken by the others, and has had to resort to ever more desperate technological gimmicks such as interactive video walls, holographic reports beamed into the studio, and Wolf Blitzer, just to remain competitive. Apparently we want our news delivered to us by people who share our political leanings. I’m all for the free market, so what’s wrong with that? Nothing, really.

Except that aside from doing a disservice to the many excellent television journalists who have gone before, it is just plain tacky to call yourself a news network and then park yourself in front of a bunch of partisan supporters and openly support one candidate over another, before polls close, during a segment that is billed as live election coverage rather than political commentary or opinion piece.

Really, really tacky.