Five media takeaways from New Hampshire election night coverage

There is more coverage, but from Rachel Maddow to Fox's split screen, there's still too much ideology.

Five media takeaways from New Hampshire primary night coverage:

1. As much as it wants to be considered a mainstream news organization, Fox News still marches to its own ideological drummer.

When Bernie Sanders, who swamped Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side, took to the podium for his victory speech tonight, every channel that I sampled carried it full screen.

But not Fox News. It split the screen in half and gave the other half to a static shot of Donald Trump’s campaign headquarters. It might seem like a small thing, but it wasn’t. And the executive who made the call made a very bad choice.

I get the idea of holding your audience with the promise of Trump, who was doubling the vote total of his nearest competitor, coming on. But there was no way the GOP winner in New Hampshire was going to hit the stage until Sanders was finished.

And Sanders was jacked up to the point where it started to feel like he was not going to get off the stage until he hit every one of his campaign talking points – right down to fossil fuel.

So what was the problem with splitting the screen?

For one thing, the Trump supporters pushed up toward the Fox cameras, holding up signs for Trump and doing such distracting and juvenile things as pointing a large foam finger in a downward direction repeatedly as Sanders spoke on the other side of the screen.

Not only did it distract from Sanders, it diminished him, his words and the importance of the election night itself.

If you’re an ideologue and a conservative political operative, maybe that’s a good thing. If you’re a journalist, it’s bad.

It doesn’t matter if most or even all of your viewers want to see Sanders diminished. If you are promising “fair and balanced” coverage to your viewers when it comes to elections, deliver it. Don’t lie about what you’re up to. If you want to do that with your regular prime-time shows, fine. But not with election coverage.

And it’s a shame that such decisions are made, because Fox has some tremendous talent on elections nights starting with the best anchor team in Bret Baier and Megyn Kelly, as well as analysts like Charles Krauthammer.

2. I have come to accept that as long as Rachel Maddow is co-hosting election night coverage on MSNBC, it is going to be as bad or worse in terms of ideological inflexibility than Fox -- from the other end of the dial.

There was a case in point Tuesday night when former GOP strategist Steve Schmidt provided a refreshingly frank (by the standards of MSNBC) assessment of Hillary Clinton’s double-digit loss to Sanders.

“I think the Wall Street speeches she gave between her candidacy and her departure from the secretary of state’s office have had a devastating effect with the democratic electorate,” he said. “And it will be a major issue going forward.”

Of course, he’s dead on in offering that as one of the reasons she is found so untrustworthy by so many voters – and so vulnerable to charges of having been bought by Wall Street. And Sanders is not the guy you want to be running against if you are carrying that kind of baggage – not this year anyway.

But Maddow was not having it. As Schmidt tried to extend his analysis to explain the power of outsiders, Trump and Sanders, winning big, Maddow insisted that you couldn’t compare what was happening with Republicans to what was happening with Democrats.

And she somehow got from Clinton’s problems with the money she took for speeches from banks and Wall Street firms to data MSNBC had from polling in New Hampshire that she said showed two-thirds of GOP voters supported a ban on Muslims entering the United States.

“That’s something different,” she said of the data on Muslims, “than what’s driving the interest in Bernie Sanders. It just is.”

Schmidt never said it was. But that’s an ideologue: You don’t need a reason or a coherent argument; it just is so.

Maddow also told viewers: “This win by Trump tonight, it may be chilling … This is going to be international news tonight, because it’s going to be seen worldwide as the ascendance of a nativism in American Republican politics that is usually confined to the Pat Buchanan fringe, the George Wallace fringe, and now it’s winning.”

George Wallace was never part of the dreaded “American Republican politics.” He was a Democrat who served as governor of Alabama and ran as an independent for president.

But if you are an ideologue, you have to make him a Republican to fit your worldview. Forget the facts.

3. Brian Williams does make MSNBC better on election nights.

This is two election nights in a row that he’s helped improve the MSNBC product since being cut from the varsity at NBC News and sent to the JV squad at MSNBC for his lies about battlefield reporting.

If nothing else, Williams does the often unnoticed, but very important, business of anchoring rolling coverage so well – like re-setting the stage at the top of every hour to help orient and update viewers just tuning in.

The problem: In his penance, he is forced to play second fiddle to Maddow. And as long as that continues, only the true believers will watch this channel.

And the last few years, the number of true believers has reached the point where MSNBC is in a deep third place behind Fox and CNN – barely competitive.

4. For all my love and respect of C-SPAN, some nights it is not the best choice. And tonight was one of them.

C-SPAN relies heavily on local news operations for its on-the-ground coverage, and it almost always makes good choices in that regard.

But the winners were already known as the last polls closed at 8 p.m., so coverage was not about the vote totals and races for the most part. It was about the analysis.

CNN and Fox were immediately focused on whether John Kasich could hold onto second (he did) and what the order of finish would be for Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush. The standings were crucial to all three. That’s where the drama was.

WMUR was the local TV station I saw C-SPAN hitching its wagon to, and while WMUR was fine on getting from campaign headquarters to campaign headquarters, the gap between its analysis of the GOP race and what was being offered at CNN and Fox elsewhere was enormous.  

I still love C-SPAN and what it stands for, but not so much tonight.

5. Some good news: All the channels are offering more coverage of election nights than they have in years past. From reporters on the ground to sheer hours of airtime, everyone is offering more.

I am sure the huge ratings and revenue generated by the debates earlier this year are a contributing factor to this development. But I don’t care what the reasons are, I welcome the increase. I just wish the coverage were less ideological and more informative.

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