Five media takeaways from Super Tuesday coverage

Network coverage was slow and pretentious. And Karl Rove came up way short on Fox.

 Here are five takeaways from Super Tuesday coverage:

1. Network news is definitely not the place to be for the best election night coverage.

ABC, NBC and CBS each gave an hour of prime-time coverage from 10 to 11 p.m. Tuesday to the Super Tuesday primary elections and caucuses.

There are two reasons for that.

First, there was a lot at stake in terms of who would be the nominee for each of the two major parties. Second, and more important in the realpolitique of commercial TV, the networks are stunned by the size of the audiences tuning in for political coverage on cable this year and they are envious of how much money cable is now making with the kind of coverage they stopped doing because they thought it was too expensive.

But you can’t just dip in and out of this kind of coverage the way the networks are trying to do this year and think you can compete. The cable channels were consistently one or two steps ahead of the networks on any breaking news that mattered.

A snapshot of that relationship could be seen starting at 10:17 p.m. with the three major cable news channels – CNN, MSNBC and Fox – all carrying Senator Ted Cruz live from Texas addressing his supporters. That’s where the story had moved after Donald Trump finished talking to his supporters and taking questions from the press in Florida.

But none of the networks were covering Cruz live.

NBC’s Baltimore affiliate, WBAL, was airing ads for its I-Team, following NBC commercials for network advertisers.  That was followed by NBC anchor Lester Holt interviewing Marco Rubio, who had already addressed his followers and done interviews on cable and CBS. Meanwhile, ABC had an ad for “Grey’s Anatomy.”

The number of ads crammed into the one hour of coverage on each of the networks was astonishing, but not as annoying as the networks sucking up even more potential time for coverage with ads for their coverage – montages of images from coverage that had happened minutes earlier. It felt as if the promotion of their coverage was more important to the networks than the quality of the coverage itself.

The networks were slow and pretentious compared to cable. An hour of watching CBS anchorman Scott Pelley striking various poses intended to make him look thoughtful with his eyeglasses in his hand instead of on his face was about 59 minutes more than I could handle.

Again, looking smart seemed more important than having smart, fast and focused coverage.

2. Digital can be every bit bad – or worse -- as old-school, over-the-air network TV.

CBS was also making a big promotional push Tuesday night for its live streamed coverage on cbsnews.com.

At 7:09 p.m., I received an email from CBS News urging me to check out its digital coverage.
Here’s part of what it said by way of highlighting the coverage:

“Some moments/bites from CBSN coverage of Super Tuesday thus far- http://www.cbsnews.com/live/

“Nearing 7 pm and Republican strategist and CBSN contributor Rick Davis has some great quotes on Trump:  ‘He’s going to say, Ted Cruz, you’re fired!’

“On Trump’s press conference: ‘There is zero chance he’s going to take any questions from the press. He’s going to make a message and walk away.’”

Except both of those “great quotes” were dead wrong in what they predicted.

Trump praised and congratulated Cruz for winning Texas, and he took more than a half dozen questions from reporters.

Talk about a pundit acting like he knows. But what about the network news division that thinks this is election-night coverage worth promoting?

3. In this time of revolutionary media change, maybe it’s time to re-think some of our election-night staples -- like Karl Rove.

Once upon a time, I was very impressed by Karl Rove. But, this year, he and his little whiteboard are leaving me cold. Either he’s not sharing the good inside stuff he knows with Fox viewers, or the game has passed him by.

Either way, he needs to raise his on-air performance or step aside for someone who will share something real with viewers. It’s blue smoke, mirrors, and blah, blah, blah with Rove this year. Worse, he seems to have let his prejudices influence his analysis.

That was highlighted Tuesday when just as Rove finished saying the race in Virginia between Trump and Marco Rubio was going to "continue to tighten," Chris Wallace interrupted with the news that Fox analysts were about to make a call.  The call announced by Megyn Kelly: Fox was projecting Trump as the winner in Virginia over Rubio, the GOP establishment's favorite.

Remember Rove's embarrassment on election night 2012 when he was in denial about the way the Ohio vote was going to the Democrats until Kelly set him straight?

John King’s Magic Wall on CNN doesn’t move me like it used to either. King is still bringing great energy to his analysis, but I don’t feel he is taking me inside wins, losses and voting patterns the way he used to.

Maybe I’ve changed. Or, maybe the predilections of various regional pockets are not as important as they used to be when voters are responding to social media messages like the ones Trump pumps out seemingly non-stop. Whatever the case, the thrill is gone.

4. We need fewer – not more – contributors who are politically connected, if not conflicted.

CNN is still my first choice for election night coverage, but having so many contributors who are in the camps, if not the employ, of candidates is driving me to more and more frequently tune-out. Disclosure of their conflicts is not enough. CNN should think about viewer/voters first – not paying contributors for what might essentially be seen as access to various political elites like the Clintons.

I have long complained about Paul Begala, now an advisor to a pro-Hillary-Clinton Super PAC, getting so much airtime on CNN. He was there again front and center Tuesday night. He is exactly the kind of connected, Washington insider voters are reacting against in their support of Trump and Bernie Sanders.

But he was only one of many. From former Obama White House aides David Axelrod and Van Jones, to Amanda Carpenter, a former aide to Cruz, and Jeffrey Lord, a supporter of Trump, it seemed like those who had been employed by presidents or senators outnumbered the currently working journalists on the CNN set at various times Tuesday night.

Election night coverage should be about information, not ideology. Lord and Jones got into a heated discussion that made me wonder whether CNN was looking only for ideological heat – rather than informational light in the selection and on-set pairing of its election-night contributors.

I know conflict equals ratings in the calculus of cable TV. But, come on, this is a president we're electing at a very troubled time in this nation’s life.

5. Where was the media analysis of the Trump phenomenon Tuesday night?

While there was no shortage of political analysis, I heard no substantive discussion anywhere of the huge media story driving the Trump phenomenon. Our lives have become so mediated, you can no longer explain a political change without examining the media component – if you ever could.

Stop back to Z on TV later this week, and you‘ll find an explanation of it here.

Correction: Scott Pelley's name was spelled incorrectly in an earlier version.

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