election 2020

Watching CNN on Election Night Felt Like Being Dipped in Boiling Oil

Are we having fun yet? Photo: CNN

On Wednesday morning, the result of the presidential election is still unknown, and likely will still be unknown for several days. This is exactly what everyone said would be the case. Over and over again, alarm bells were ringing that election returns on Tuesday night were going to provide an incomplete and possibly misleading picture of who won or was more likely to win. Sure enough, that’s what’s happened. Several of the closest, most significant battleground states are still counting votes, and it could take a long time to have a result. And yet in spite of this completely inevitable moment of limbo, experiencing it in real time last night on CNN felt like being slowly flayed alive, or perhaps buried under a suffocating pile of county maps, each of them stalled at 82 percent returned.

There’s a sense of inevitability about that, too — a sense that of course there would be this excruciating tick-tock as the polls gradually close, of course the only way CNN could’ve covered this is to stand in front of a giant magic map and watch breathlessly as states go from blue to red and back again. But the specific programming choices on CNN last night exacerbated it all. Some of those decisions were typical for CNN’s usual election coverage; some of them were clearly made with the particularities of last night in mind. Together, they created an Election Night experience that was strangely intimate and unnecessarily torturous.

There are three ways to think about the issues with CNN’s election coverage, a.k.a. its thumbscrew in the form of a newscast: the basics, the details, and the timeline.

The biggest choice CNN made between 7 p.m. and midnight last night was arguably defensible: It became the John King Magic Board show, an hours-long stretch of nearly unbroken closeups of John King’s upper body as he stood in front of his large touchscreen map, zooming in and out of states and counties, flipping back and forth between 2016 and 2020 results, again and again circling Miami-Dade County and drawing two roughly parallel lines between Pennsylvania and Minnesota. This is fundamental Election Night coverage stuff, especially for cable news. Fox and MSNBC have their own versions of the Magic Board Man (Bill Hemmer and Steve Kornacki, respectively). John King and his giant map were as certain to be major figures on CNN last night as the sun was to rise in the morning.

But it matters how you deploy the Magic Board. On the other big cable channels, Steve Kornacki and Bill Hemmer were frequent but not constant figures. The overall coverage was more of a mixture, balancing that obsessive map-based focus with voices from panelists who could occasionally hop on to say things like “and remember, most of the early vote hasn’t been counted yet,” or, “this is exactly what we expected to happen.” The trouble with CNN’s version, with its breathless laser focus on John King and his very underwhelming sidekick Wolf Blitzer, is that King could say “we lack context” until the cows came home, and he’d still be standing in front of a giant map colored with stark reds and blues. The words and the imagery did not match.

Even worse, King stood in front of that board and repeatedly declared the election to be “interesting,” “exciting,” and — several times — “fun.” The intense dissonance between King’s happy good times in front of the board and the viewer-side sensation of having one’s skin be slowly peeled off is gross enough on its surface. But it gets more upsetting when you step back and consider that King’s fun is coming because of how incomplete the results are. It’s just a super jolly delightful time to watch the map change colors a thousand times and speculate each time about whether this version of the map is the one that will matter in the end. Who knows! It’s a gas!

Those are the basics, and without rethinking everything about CNN’s approach to election-returns coverage, they were always going to be a problem. It wouldn’t have been that hard to make adjustments that could’ve had some impact (perhaps less emphasis on the fun, for instance), but the underlying structure would still be there.

There are, however, a few details of how those hours went that could’ve been changed, details that might’ve dialed back at least some of the gut-level dread. King’s county-level zoom-in graphic, for example, displayed the county name but not the state, so it was easy to get swept away in Webb and Lake and Macomb county, utterly losing track of where those places are. But the biggest troubling detail was also the simplest. All CNN needed to do was make the very rudimentary decision to just not change the states to red or blue until there is a projected winner. Hours and hours of the night were spent staring at John King’s board, so the board itself matters, and if the board shows states color coded as though they’ve been won, the visual impression is that there has been a decision. A board where those states are left uncolored creates a very different impression: that there’s still uncertainty. Uncertainty was the correct message to communicate, but CNN decided that flipping back and forth from red to blue was more exciting.

The final fingernail-pulling flourish CNN put on the night has to do with its treatment of the night’s timeline. At its core, it was fueled by that blue/red map, which telegraphs the idea that results are changing over the course of the night rather than becoming more clear. The logic is that change is exciting, and exciting makes for good TV. But the reality is this yawning gap between CNN’s horserace coverage (first Biden’s ahead! Then Trump! Can Biden squeak it out!) and what actually happened over the course of the night, which is that slowly, the results became more known without ever being solid enough to declare a winner.

More vitally, treating the early primetime hours of election coverage as a fun horserace has terrifying consequences when the president makes a 3 a.m. speech falsely declaring himself to be the winner of the election. Even when the hosts do their best to call that statement into question or contradict any blatant falsehoods, the previous several hours of coverage have established that this is just another one of the night’s many exciting events.

As the evening went on, John King did start to pull back on the thrilling fervor of it all, shifting more into regular reminders that this would take patience, and that it could be hours or days before these votes were fully counted. But by then it was too late. The sense of the night as an event had already been solidifying, and with it, that unbelievably painful treatment of the election as a fun and exciting, ever-changing sport to follow. The gradually clearer understanding of election results might hurt for lots of reasons, but they don’t have to feel like being stretched on a rack for the sake of John King’s fun.

*A version of this article appears in the November 9, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Watching CNN on Election Night Felt Like Actual Torture