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Midterm Media Do the Wave

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Video: MSNBC wasted little time reacting to the reaction at the polls last night.

“Wave,” “tidal wave,” “tsunami”—the terms for the midterm results in last night’s TV coverage were limited only by the English language’s number of terms for something really big from an ocean. (The land-based lobby really needs to get its act together if it wants “earthquake” and “landslide” restored to their historical place in 2012.) But as the election played out—in very broad strokes anyway—largely as anticipated, with Republicans taking the House in a big swing and Democrats holding on narrowly to the Senate, the coverage through the night was largely and exercise in reiterating analysis that had been previewed for weeks and months.

The early part of the night, of course, belonged to cable news. (While the networks largely went into reruns, ABC ran an original episode of Dancing With the Stars. Spoiler alert: good night for the Palins there too. Update: To be fair, NBC did join coverage earlier, after an all-new Biggest Loser.) Fox News, for all its image as the Republican-friendly network, actually seemed to have the most reserved coverage in tone of the three big cablers, going with a more reserved set and less flashy graphics (granted, by cable news standards) than its competitors. A whiteboard was even employed.

The channel, of course, had the advantage of having commenters on its payroll, like Karl Rove and Sarah Palin, who were very active players in the election, and their (relative) reserve seemed in keeping with the decision by GOP leadership to avoid overt celebration. (Reportedly, balloons were forbidden from the House victory party.) Palin did, at one point, inadvertently echo the Jon Stewart Rally to Restore Sanity by noting that, in the changed Washington, “the train is leaving the station.” (A peace train? A crazy train? A love train? She did not specify.)

Credit where due, Fox also had a more, well, balanced panel much of the night than its competitor MSNBC. Holding forth from left of center for Fox were the recently-high-profile Juan Williams and Democratic political guru Joe Trippi. MSNBC’s main lineup, on the other hand, was basically its center-to-left lineup of nightly hosts: Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell.

And for the night, MSNBC embraced the role of the voice of opposition to the new House leadership. (And the new House leadership returned the favor. Rep. Eric Cantor couldn’t resist needling Matthews with how happy he was to be on MSNBC, especially “on a night like this.”) Repeatedly and assertively, Maddow grilled Republican guests on what specific cuts they planned to meet their deficit-reduction pledges, especially as they call for an extension of Bush tax cuts for the upper-income that would cost an estimated $700 billion. Maybe not surprisingly for a winning election, not many such potentially uncomfortable specifics came.

And CNN? What CNN cannot deliver in partisan appeal, and has not been able to deliver in successful new programming, it tried to make up for in visual clutter. With a mob of panelists hunched around what looked like the world’s most garish blackjack table, CNN’s screen was flooded with screens, computer graphics and glowing red and blue from every available surface, while the cameras inadvisedly tried to shake things up with motion-sickness inducing closeups and tilted angles.

While there were not many showy innovations like 2008’s holograms—John King was back with his magic wall to repeatedly show how red the House map had become—there were attempts at new visual signatures, like a new attempt to graphically break down percentages with graphs that looked like stacks of glowing Legos. (On Comedy Central, Jon Stewart likened the graphics to Tetris, while Jon Oliver spoofed the graphics-for-their-own-sake with a greenscreen suit that made him “become” Rand Paul.) I remember the morning after what CNN’s coverage looked like; I have no lasting impression of what anyone said.

To be fair, CNN was not the only network with odd graphics. NBC (and MSNBC’s) Chuck Todd was again paired with his peculiar and seemingly purposeless “virtual Capitol” hologram. But by the time the networks joined cable and rolled out their coverage, with the broad strokes of the night already established, their work seemed more like a mop-up operation, focused on framing the returns for the morning after.

And what will that frame be? From the results this morning, it appears that the Republican gains in the House will exceed those in the 1994 midterms, but the question is whether the media impact of them will be as pronounced. On the one hand, we simply have more media to amplify election results than we did then. On the other hand, 1994’s Congressional switch came as much more of a stunner, with GOP gains in the House more than doubling most pundits’ predictions.

So will the media gauge the Republicans’ win by its size, or by its size vs. expectations? As Nate Silver blogged at the New York Times, there was often a tone in the coverage that last night was a split decision—the GOP took the House but not the Senate—even though the Democrats had a sizeable loss in the Senate, and the Republicans may have a legitimate gripe if their win is portrayed as less significant simply because it could theoretically have been even bigger.

But we’ll see. The interpretation is still forming, and if there’s one thing we know about tsunamis, it’s that they leave you with a lot to wade through afterward.

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