For the last 18 months, CNN has chosen to live or die with political operatives playing a prominent role in its campaign coverage.
Despite widespread criticism, the channel stuck with that strategy on election night, and mainly died with it in the early going.
Starting with the 5 o'clock hour, when polling results were made available, CNN featured Corey Lewandowski, former campaign chairman for Republican nominee Donald Trump, and Bakari Sellers, a former South Carolina state legislator who has become one of the chief TV surrogates for Democrat Hillary Clinton. There were others on the set. In fact, it was choked with panelists. I will never understand why, with all the fine journalists it has hired, CNN insists on showcasing tainted politicos.
After all the legitimate criticism CNN has taken for hiring Lewandowski and featuring him even as he was still being paid by Trump, you'd think that network executives would bury him on election night. But they did the opposite at the start of the night.
One of the biggest surprises was the strong early start at MSNBC during the 5 o'clock hour with Chuck Todd — the regular host of that time period — presiding. Steve Kornacki did a great job with the exit poll data, providing insight into those early numbers in a way neither CNN nor Fox was doing.
Kornacki, whose high-energy, shirt-sleeve presentation is a perfect match for election nights, gave viewers the first clear look at how seniors and millennials were voting — and how education and gender were dividing them between Clinton and Trump. And gender has been the big cultural story throughout this election.
Once the first team arrived on the air at Fox at 6 p.m. with Megyn Kelly, it was no contest among the cable channels as to who had the most engaging election-night presentation. Forget the much-hyped new Fox studio space — Kelly is the draw. She brings an energy, sharpness of focus and just plain sparkle to the screen that makes the Fox telecast feel like opening night on Broadway with a great play and star-studded cast.
Not that the rest of the cast at Fox rose to her level.
The core four at the Fox anchor desk — Kelly, Bret Baier, Brit Hume and Chris Wallace — are four solid TV journalists. But the production stumbled in the early going, with too much talk about the new set and the inability to execute simple cuts to correspondents in two others cities at around 7:40 p.m. Then the audio on Dana Perino was messed up about an hour later. There is no excuse for that kind of sloppiness.
And if CNN is diminished by the likes of Lewandowski and Sellers, what do you say about Karl Rove — the former top aide to George W. Bush and a conservative political operative — at Fox News?
One thing you can say is that it's time to lose his whiteboard act. I love old-school, and it was cute to see him hold up that little whiteboard on Fox in years past while CNN was grooving on its high-tech "Magic Wall" with John King.
But when Rove held up the board Tuesday, it looked old and silly. The numbers he had from North Carolina provided nothing that had not already been seen and heard on CNN and Fox.
This is another politico with conflicting loyalties who needs to be removed from center stage in election coverage. He may know every county in the country, but he minces the numbers too fine to have any meaning for the average viewer. And his listing of all his Republican buddies in those counties seems endless — and only makes me wonder how many conflicts of interest are involved in his relationships with the people he names.
CNN's performance improved dramatically during the 8 o'clock hour as races tightened in Florida and Virginia and there were meaningful results to report and parse in Ohio and North Carolina.
The best moments came in a stretch from about 8:10 p.m. to 8:18 p.m. with anchor Wolf Blitzer standing alongside King, who was working the Magic Wall as well as it has ever been worked as they dove deep on a seesaw race in Florida.
Blitzer stopped King's analysis for each lead change, and they were coming within minutes of each other. It was as good as it gets in the early part of an election night with CNN journalists offering viewers straight information and on-the-fly analysis.
And the best thing about it: Not once during that whole stretch did you see Lewandowski, Sellers or any of the other partisan mouthpieces.