Final preparations are made for President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden's election night party at McCormick Place in Chicago, Ill. on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012.
Final preparations are made for President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden's election night party at McCormick Place in Chicago, Ill. on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012. ((Chris Walker/Chicago Tribune))

The partisan media madness started early Tuesday on the "Fox & Friends" morning show with host Steve Doocy somehow turning a report on midnight voting in Dixville Notch, N.H., into an attack on President Barack Obama for his handling of the September attack on an American consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

"Appalling" was the word U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) used to describe the president's behavior. And, with Doocy priming the pump of vitriol, she was only warming up.

Meanwhile, on the other side, former Democratic National Party chair Howard Dean was on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" minutes after the polls opened in Pennsylvania, already alleging voter suppression in Philadelphia based on hearsay. Host Joe Scarborough did ask for specifics but didn't follow up when Dean offered only a flimsy anecdote.

And so it went through much of the final day of one of the lowest-road presidential elections in history. The only thing that was lower than the attack-ad-dominated style of campaigning by both sides was the performance of an increasingly superficial and partisan press. And for the most part, TV, online and social media stayed true to their debased course on Election Day and Night.

Sinclair Broadcast Group, which is headquartered in Hunt Valley, didn't even wait until Tuesday, according to Talking Points Memo, the progressive, political website.

On Monday, WSYX, the ABC affiliate owned by Sinclair in Columbus, Ohio, pre-empted "World News with Diane Sawyer" and "Nightline" to present a Sinclair-produced 30-minute program that the site characterized as an attack on Obama.

The program included such statements as, "The cost of Obamacare is making many Americans sick to their stomach," according to Talking Points Memo. Because the program did not air in Baltimore, it was not available to The Sun.

Sinclair billed it as "ABC 6 Election Special – VOTE 2012."

Scott Livingston, vice president of news for Sinclair, confirmed that the special also aired Monday in Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Dayton, Ohio; Asheville, N.C.; and West Palm Beach and Pensacola, Fla. While Florida was a huge battleground state, there was none bigger going into Election Day than Ohio.

Livingston said Sinclair co-produced the shows with the local stations. He characterized the broadcasts as "hard hitting, but fair" in a telephone interview Tuesday night. He said criticism of the shows as attacks on Obama was "unfair."

Livingston, former news director at Baltimore's WBFF, said Sinclair's Baltimore-owned station also ran a political special from 11 p.m. to midnight Monday on ballot questions pertaining to the Dream Act, same-sex marriage and expanded gambling.

In 2004, Sinclair aired a special that was widely seen as an attack on Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. That one aired on WBFF as well as other Sinclair stations across the country.

But even Sinclair couldn't match the tone on MSNBC Tuesday. At 4 p.m., show host Martin Bashir was asking an analyst, "How crooked has Romney’s campaign been?"

The headline on the screen: "Mitt Happened."

Once the A-teams came on and started to settle in for the evening, the coverage started looking more like journalism -- facts and data accompanying all the opinion, rhetoric and attack that had been filling screens all day.

John King was at his Magic Wall again for CNN and doing great work. Maybe it didn’t seem as special to some as it did in 2008. But that's because he made it the new standard for televised, Election-Night vote reporting and analysis.

All you had to do is surf through the other channels to see his influence. MSNBC had two people trying to do what King does: Tamron Hall and Chuck Todd.

The verdict: More is less -- far less than the kind of keen analysis King offered.

The real joy for political junkies was in reading between the lines of what King said in the early going Tuesday night when there were still constraints on what could be reported from exit polls. Every time, he highlighted a statistic like the low turnout of white evangelicals in Virginia and told viewers "we'll be watching this to see what it means for Romney" you felt that he knew it already meant something.

One of the most intriguing bits of election coverage was found on YouTube, where a voter in Pennsylvania made a video of a voting machine changing his vote for Obama to one for Romney -- no matter how many times he tried to correct the error.

MSNBC and Mother Jones followed up and claimed to have confirmed the authenticity of the video, which was widely discussed throughout social media Tuesday. Pennsylvania election officials were reported to have taken the machine off-line until the problem could be corrected.

But neither organization would name the person who made the video. Given the political orientation of MSNBC and Mother Jones, as well as the overall partisan nature of coverage this election year, it seems wise to withhold judgment on the authenticity of the video at this point.

But it was another example of the power and problems with political reporting online and in social media this cycle.

The big networks and major cable channels still owned the story Election Night. And most of them poured resources into their coverage. But the money was often spent on spectacle as much as journalism.

CNN, for example, used the mast of New York's Empire State Building as a giant red (Romney) and blue (Obama) thermometer to illustrate the totals for the candidates throughout the night.

While it was a big, bold move, it seemed misguided to spend money on a New York City landmark when the real news at CNN Tuesday was that, for the first time in Election Night history, a major network or cable channel was broadcasting out of Washington.

CNN had overhauled its Washington studios and control room to base its Election Night effort in the home of its high-powered political team. But the big PR visual was telling viewers to think New York City -- instead of D.C.

If you have to go the show-biz route, I think the Election-Night hologram with correspondent Jessica Yellin in 2008 was a better call. It was more fun anyway.