SEPTEMBER 24, 2008
On the night I first saw his beard in person, it was no easier for me to accept what I empirically knew to be true: that, during the 2008 primary season, Wolf Blitzer--Wolf Freakin' Blitzer--presided over the number one election-night news show on cable television. The man's so devoid of charisma that you can picture him reporting, in his endearing monotone, that a comet is headed straight for CNN studios and that he'll be prematurely robbed of his molecular composition and the chance to ever see his family again in seven, six, just five seconds now. In this era of outsized personality and hectoring opinion, he doesn't have catchphrases. He doesn't call guests liars. If there are any thrills going up his leg, he's kind enough not to share the information with us. Every morning, he runs five miles on the treadmill and drinks freshly squeezed orange juice because he's 60, and hosting primary coverage that starts at four p.m. and usually ends some time the next day is physically demanding work.
And yet, this winter and spring, Blitzer did preside over the number one election-night news show on cable television. Aside from scoring higher ratings than its main competitors, Fox News and MSNBC, during all but one of the early primaries (it lost Florida, which was uncontested among Democrats, to Fox), CNN won the first quarter of the year among the most sought-after demographic, 25- to 54-year-olds, for the first time since 2001. Fox reclaimed the top spot in the second quarter, largely because its primetime shows are still more popular and there were fewer primaries. But, while Fox's second quarter viewership dropped off 1 percent from 2007, CNN's was up 24.
There are Jewish holidays that celebrate lesser miracles. The first few years of the decade were disastrous for the network: In the aftermath of Bush's election and then September 11, CNN couldn't decide how much of Fox's formula to ape, and, as a result, the network just seemed confused. Its viewers disappeared, and Time Warner's profits went with them. There were rumors of a sale or merger with ABC News.
Soul-searching was needed. Fox had already staked out the right, and, around 2006, when it became cool to be a Democrat again, MSNBC started to tack left. Their ideological positioning seemed shrewd: Conventional wisdom held that, if cable news networks wanted to stay relevant--as well as profitable--they'd have to follow the British newspaper model and harbor their partisan sympathies loudly and proudly. And, in some respects, this prediction proved correct. MSNBC has gone from a distant, morose third to a much closer, plucky third since Keith Olbermann and company started bashing Republicans; Fox may have lost a step, but it still draws the largest number of viewers; and whenever Lou Dobbs, CNN's sole flamethrower, unleashes another screed against brown people, it's ratings gold.
But, Dobbs aside, CNN couldn't bring itself to adopt the same strategy. Instead, it doubled down on even-handed, data-heavy political coverage. On a commercial level, the result has been an improbable ratings resurrection. On a watching-from-home level, the result has fluctuated wildly: The coverage can be nicely informative one moment, then bland, pedantic, and painfully hackish the next. And yet, when compared to grumpy Fox and self-righteous MSNBC, CNN's election coverage may well be the least of three evils. If nothing else, it has raised the possibility that there might be a future for neutral journalism on cable after all. The network says it has the best political team on television so many times a day that it feels strange even considering it. But I think we're going to have to come to grips with the fact that it's true.
When I traveled to CNN's New York studios on the night of the Pennsylvania primary in April, the first thing that jumped out at me was the network's emphasis on technology. I've been in a fair number of newsrooms, but none quite so bright, or with so many things fighting for your eyes' attention. There were 50 monitors in the studio displaying ever-shifting flag graphics or poll numbers or CNN logos; a 20-foot-by-ten-foot "Video Wall" that Wolf interacts with and that necessitates so much work it has its very own control room of about a dozen people (this, in addition to the main control room one floor below); and an absurd number of fixed and roving cameras (twelve, to be precise) recording it all.
The correspondents, meanwhile, spent most of their non-speaking time fiddling with PDAs and PCs. I saw Alex Castellanos clicking through Wikipedia; Donna Brazile told me she looks at Real Clear Politics; and Jeffrey Toobin, a legal analyst for the network who pleaded with management to let him join the political team this election, consults Talking Points Memo and Daily Kos. Paul Begala, an unreconstructed Clintonian, says he sometimes got 20 e-mails a night from Barack Obama's campaign spokesman, Bill Burton, trying to set him straight. Brazile received upward of 400 e-mails during primary evenings--some from campaign professionals, some from strangers (whom she willingly engages; try it), and at least one from Castellanos asking if the kitchen was still open at the Empire Hotel up the street.
Though this flurry of background activity might look peculiar--there's really no reason we need to see Begala attack his BlackBerry behind Gloria Borger's left ear when she's analyzing delegate math--it's very much a part of the network's plan. In a creepy display of corporate synchronicity, nearly everybody I spoke to at CNN said something along the lines of: We're not interested in technology just for technology's sake; it's all in the service of providing information to the viewer.
And, you know what, I buy that. During primary season, the network offered far more hard data--the kind of stuff you're looking for on election night--in a far more compelling way than the other networks, where commentary is king. Much of that can be attributed to the gizmos. It reminds me of what Hendrik Hertzberg wrote in these pages 24 years ago: that television "is best when it mediates least."
Consider the example of the "Magic Wall," easily the finest innovation in cable news this year. D.C. bureau chief David Bohrman, who has led the network's techno-push, discovered the Wall--which is also used by military contractors looking to graphically demonstrate connections between terrorist networks--at what he called "a non-classified spy conference" in Texas during the fall of 2007. He immediately knew he had to have one. Basically, it's a giant iPod touch-screen (or, for sports fans, a John Madden telestrator on steroids) that allows you to move maps and ballot counts around in such a way as to be maximally informative. For instance, on Pennsylvania night, John King, the former AP reporter whose mastery of the Wall is expert bordering on sensual, put up a map of the state and, by pushing his index fingers out away from each other, zoomed in on the southeast corner. He then drew a line around Philadelphia and its suburbs, where, he explained, Obama needed to win by 100,000 votes to have any chance of taking Pennsylvania. It wasn't a landmark moment in TV history, but it delivered useful information in a visually graceful way.
And, as Roland Martin--a Chicago-based journalist who has assumed a more prominent role for CNN this year-- suggested to me, that's the kind of tech-enhanced coverage we should expect in 2008. "If you just put up a chalkboard," he said, "the general public would look at you as if your ass was nuts."
Of course, with so many hours to fill, the network's election coverage is about more than just the gadgets and number-crunching; it's about the conversation--and that's where things start to get tricky. "The thing about me is, I love to cook and I love to eat," Martin reveals in a quiet moment. He often speaks with his left- and right-hand fingertips touching gently in front of him, like an infomercial salesman who's just turned on the earnest. He continues, "Our election coverage every night is like a great dinner party. ... You have a great mix of people who see the world differently, and it can be combustible and exciting."
Let's leave aside the question of whether it'd be pleasurable to share a table with some of these folks (Bill Bennett!); what's irrefutably true about CNN's dinner party is that it's gigantic (there are so many political consultants milling in and around the Election Center that it makes you feel bad for the two or three others who weren't invited) and far more devoted to equal time than the other networks.
On Pennsylvania night, CNN's panel of consultants was on the verge of breaking into a juicy, heated exchange on the differences between Pastor John Hagee and Reverend Jeremiah Wright, when Campbell Brown intervened and said, "Wait, wait, wait; I've got to go Democrat, Republican, Democrat, Republican." It was obviously an insane thing to do--a real-time glimpse into how banal and clipped responses have triumphed over a brand of discourse that might, in some small way, approach honesty. But the decency in her request--there should be some nod toward even-handedness in election coverage--points directly to the biggest challenge facing CNN: How does it make balanced conversation interesting?
The network sure hasn't figured it out yet. This has only become more apparent since the primaries ended, and punditry has once again become more important than straight data delivery. And yet, for a little while longer, I hope that viewers resist the partisan pleasures of Fox and MSNBC. Because if CNN somehow hits on the right formula for commentary, and people respond in the way they did to its primary coverage, the network will have at least delayed the complete polarization of cable news--wherein we all just retreat to our ideological hovels, never to engage with the other side again. Who knew the absurdly vanilla integrity of Wolf Blitzer would be our last, best hope?
Greg Veis is a deputy web editor of The New Republic.