David Zurawik

TV served a higher, ritualistic purpose on this election night

There are moments in our national life when media take on a higher role serving a ritualistic function beyond even their journalistic one as we collectively move through an epic passage.

Tuesday night and early Wednesday morning that happened with the victory of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, and thanks to some good work at CNN, TV was mostly up to the challenge after 18 months of failing in major ways to responsibly serve democracy in these tumultuous times.


It had to be. For all our talk and love of new media, TV was still the old medium we gathered around in our homes, bars and at viewing parties for these election returns. And there many of us watched in surprise, if not amazement, as the prognostications came unwound before our eyes and the impossible started looking like it just might happen.

We needed TV with its red-white-and-blue rituals of election night coverage – the magic walls, the reporters on scene at the site of victory parties, the anchors chewing it over endlessly with studio analysts on brightly-lit sets – to serve as a steadying influence through a night of massive transition.


Make no mistake about it, what happened Tuesday and early Wednesday is nothing short of a life passage for the nation, and TV was the guide talking us through it.

The guide with the most talent and resources was CNN. I can't tell how glad I was to see CNN ditch its damned political operatives for most of the night and go to a four-person game once it became apparent that the election was not going to be over by 11 p.m. with Hillary Clinton the president-elect. Something massive was happening, and CNN had the sense to forget about its panels of partisan pundits for a while and go with journalistic pros.

The four stars of the evening at CNN were Wolf Blitzer, Jake Tapper, Dana Bash and John King out of the channel's Washington bureau.
Blitzer and King were superb as a two-man game with King working the Magic wall, and Blitzer standing alongside constantly pushing him for more and more data – looks inside more and more counties in key states and why their totals matter.

Man, did Blitzer, one of the finest journalists cable TV has ever known, rise to the occasion. And for all the razzle-dazzle other networks have added in the wake of King's mastery at the Magic Wall, he showed he still has more game than any of them.

Of course, social media being social media,  some know-nothings on Twitter took shots at Blitzer for the tone of his questions to King.

But that's how people talk in a newsroom when they are competing on a big story, boys and girls. Pay attention to what they are saying, stop sending your uninformed tweets, and you might learn something. This is how some real journalists push each other to get it right - and get more of it than the competition has.

And when Blitzer wasn't storming the screen with King, he was questioning Tapper and Bash, two more outstanding journalists who believe in verifying information before sharing it.

It was Bash who broke the news on CNN that Clinton had called Trump to concede shortly after John Podesta, Clinton's campaign chairman, was seen on camera telling Clinton supporters gathered for a victory to go home. I loved the way she appeared to take an extra beat or two to confirm what she had heard as Blitzer went back to the wall with King. And then, when she reported the concession call, I trusted that she had it right -- as unbelievable as it seemed that the race was really over and Trump had won.


On the other hand, I hated that at 2 a.m. shortly before that happened, CNN had brought out its wretched politicos to do their spin act.

I do not turn to partisan politicos and ideologues at times like this for wisdom and clarity. But there they were: Corey Lewandowski, Jeffrey Lord, Van Jones, David Axelrod and the rest of that gang doing their dances. A curse on all of them and the executives at CNN that seem so hopelessly committed to giving them airtime. I really didn't want or need the TV drama between Lewandowski and Jones.

Thankfully, it was back to Blitzer, King, Tapper and Bash down the homestretch. And they took one of the biggest political stories of my lifetime responsibly home.