As much as working in politics is ultimately just a job, covering it is, too.
The not-so-fun work of television election coverage was on display Tuesday night at NBC News’ headquarters in New York as the network’s star pundits and journalists lined up and talked and talked and talked of what was essentially a foregone conclusion: that Democratic politicians would regain control of the House while the Senate would remain firmly in the grip of Republicans.
There was no dramatic “blue wave” as hoped for on the left — some seats in both branches even went from blue to red, as did a couple of gubernatorial races. President Trump’s strategy of pushing so many Republican elections as actually a vote for him, not to mention his tactic of fearmongering on immigration, seems to have worked quite well. Two Trump-supporting Republican representatives in California and New York won re-election, despite their facing criminal indictment. Georgia has apparently elected a far-right, Trump-supporting Republican, who also happened to be the Secretary of State, meaning he supervised his own election. Even though at least two dozen Democrats were added to the House, there is still a clamor for Trump and politicians supporting or emulating him. Maybe that’s why the mood among NBC and MSNBC anchors like Chuck Todd, Savannah Guthrie, Lester Holt, Andrea Mitchell, Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews and Brian Williams, along with some pundits who came and went throughout the evening, seemed rather subdued.
Tom Brokaw, who joined NBC in the studio a little before 10 p.m. looking supremely groomed and carrying a bulging leatherbound planner/notebook as well as an iPhone and a tablet, said what others in the room seemed to not want to hear: “Democrats need to figure out who they are.” When the commercial came shortly after, everyone looked down at their phones and Brokaw left, likely for another seat on another panel. Holt had his makeup touched up; Guthrie asked a producer for “something” because she was feeling a little “something.” It was a long day and the studio was also hotter than usual.
In the election night control room, normally the one used for “The Today Show,” Andrew Lack, chairman of NBC News and MSNBC, and NBC News president Noah Oppenheim calmly discussed when this or that race had been or should be called. Dafna Linzer, managing editor of politics for NBC and MSNBC, chatted idly and joked with colleagues. If it weren’t for the dozens of screens glaring with pollster numbers, anchors, waiting guests and election graphics, it seemed like it could have been any news day.
Just the day before, Mitchell said she was expecting to be surprised at the results “because that’s the story of covering politics.” But there was little in the way of surprise on Tuesday. Despite all the talk of a huge surge in early voting and long lines at polls and more women running, donating and voting than ever before, it was a pretty typical midterm election wherein voters gave one branch of government to the party opposing the president.
Or maybe, given the crude tenor of politics today led by Trump and the constant barrage of bad news, anchors, like the rest of America, can no longer register surprise.
Todd, who was one of the more energetic voices on Tuesday night, admitted before the election that “there is a numbness” to all that is happening in American politics currently, agreeing that genuine surprise is difficult to come by, in large part because of Trump’s use of hyperbole and outright lies to support whatever narrative he prefers.
“I think the real struggle is with those of us that cover it day to day…figuring out how to put context around that issue, the numbness, the nonstop battering of what appears to be news, but is really nothing more than glorified hyperbole,” Todd added. “That’s a challenge the press has been facing for three years and we’re still struggling.”
As for what practical challenges Trump may face (investigations, subpoenas for his tax records) now that the House is led by Democrats, as well as its number of oversight committees, even that prospect didn’t seem to excite any of the faces of NBC. Mitchell, who’s been covering politics since the Sixties, admitted that, ultimately, the House going blue gives Trump a “great foil” for the next election.
“He’ll have something to campaign against,” Mitchell said. “It may have been even harder for him if both houses had stayed Republican.”
In politics, sometimes when you lose, you win.
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