David Zurawik

From Nate Silver to Jay Carney, more election coverage, less insight

There is more media than ever covering American political life. And with each major election, the coverage seems to get worse – or, at least, more confused and misguided.

That is certainly the story of national media performance in Tuesday's wild midterm elections anyway.


I can't wait to hear all the political insiders who worship at the altar of Nate Silver explain how he could have been so wrong about Maryland's gubernatorial race.

On Monday, Silver said on his FiveThirtyEight website that there was a 94 percent chance Democrat Anthony G. Brown would be Maryland's next governor, and that Brown's margin of victory over Republican Larry Hogan would most likely be 9.7 percentage points.


I also can't wait to see the political science professor who so pompously explained to me on Monday that Silver's famed statistical model couldn't possibly be wrong – and how much improved political journalism is today because of online sites like Silver's and all the social media conversation they generate.

There certainly was no shortage of media conversation and coverage of the election Tuesday night. There were new high-visibility election teams online at places like Yahoo, which featured Katie Couric, as well as on traditionally below-the-radar cable channels like Bloomberg TV.

John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, authors of "Game Change," anchored Bloomberg's election night effort. And while they write terrific election books, they delivered some of the sorriest and most ridiculously smug TV coverage I can remember seeing.

The old-line 24/7 news channels turned out in force as well. I can't imagine any outfit this side of the New York Times having more reporters on the ground Tuesday than CNN.

And yet for all those foot soldiers and some superb analysis by Jake Tapper on the set, CNN's coverage was debased to the point of being unwatchable at times by the featured presence of such hardcore former Obama operatives as Van Jones, Jay Carney and Stephanie Cutter in the guise of analysts.

Even the dinosaur networks of ABC, NBC and CBS devoted an hour of prime time to politics Tuesday night – something they have been trying to avoid for more than a decade on midterm elections. Not that any of them brought much clarity to the discussion of the Republican wave that swept across the political landscape.

The core of the problem with much of the coverage on cable was the use of ideologues in the role of analysts and the failure of the channels to distinguish between them and the journalists on the set.

After the failure of "Crossfire," you might think CNN would finally understand that the days of dueling political operatives from the right and the left are long since dead. But CNN just doesn't seem to get the fact that those partisan operatives symbolize exactly the poisonous discourse in Washington that voters rejected Tuesday at the polls.


Not that it was limited to CNN where Carney and Jones constantly tried to deny the reality of the Republican victory and the repudiation of the policies of their former White House boss despite the mountains of evidence. They were not as deeply into denial and spin as Karl Rove was at Fox News on election night in 2012, but they were operating in the same kind of parallel universe.

MSNBC, meanwhile, had Al Sharpton sitting alongside Chuck Todd with no explanation that one is first and foremost a political activist and the other a journalist. Their analyses were presented and treated as if they were equals – even though Sharpton, the MSNBC host and analyst, was at some points Tuesday night praising get out the vote Democratic efforts in Pennsylvania that Sharpton, the ideologue, participated in as an activist.

I don't know why NBC News and Todd would let their credibility be diminished this way by the struggling MSNBC where Chris Matthews, who lapsed in and out of stream of consciousness babbling at times Tuesday night, is still considered an acceptable co-anchor.

A lot of things made me angry with Tuesday night's coverage, but running neck-and-neck with the operative-analysts was an effort by Heilemann and Halperin to go after Fox News shortly after 10 p.m. when it called the Colorado Senate race for Republican Cory Garnder over Democrat incumbent Mark Udall.

At that point, Fox was the only network to make that call, and Halperin and Heilemann disingenuously contextualized the move by Fox as TV recklessly interfering with the voting process -- even though almost every other network was doing the same all night.

The two anchors went to five different reporters and analysts giving each the opportunity to question or condemn the call by Fox.


One political operative turned analyst, Patti Solis Doyle, who ran Hillary Clinton's disaster of a 2008 presidential campaign, disputed the Fox call, saying, "What I'm hearing right now is that if we get to 2 million [votes], we can take it [still win Colorado]."

With that kind of intel no wonder Clinton's campaign imploded.

Bill Burton, a former Obama press aide who was also serving as a Bloomberg analyst, sanctimoniously chipped in with, "… In terms of networks calling these races, they should certainly not be calling them if votes are still out and there's the possibility for people to still go to the polls."

But 14 minutes later, guess what Halperin and Bloomberg did: called Colorado for Gardner. That call by Bloomberg came on the heels of the Associated Press joining Fox in saying the Republican would win Colorado.