MSNBC was somber. Fox News was cheerful. And CNN was loud.
As with so many things, the coverage of the midterm elections sprawling across cable news Tuesday night was on brand. On a good night for Republicans and a bad night for Democrats in Congress, the left-friendly MSNBC election desk had the feeling of a bar after layoff day at the local plant: some feisty talk, some recriminations, some denial. (On Comedy Central, Jon Stewart called it straighter and funnier: “It’s a Red Wedding out there.”) As the Republican count inched up toward a Senate majority, Chris Matthews’ scrambled to see the light: “Not to be Baghdad Bob,” he held forth, “but there’s still a path to victory!”
For MSNBC, maybe: It could be that a Republican Congress and upcoming Presidential election could lift it from its ratings doldrums just as the rise of Barack Obama juiced Fox News late in the Bush era. But there was not too much joy in Mudville Tuesday night. One moment of lightness did come early in the night as veteran eminence Tom Brokaw, in the midst of commentary, was interrupted by a blaring alarm ring on his smartphone on live TV. Brokaw rolled with it, pretending to take a call: “Yes, I will remember to bring home the milk!”
At Fox, home base of many a GOP viewer, a lower-screen graphic maintained a NET GAIN R count throughout the night. The tone wasn’t so much giddy as quietly upbeat—smiles around the anchor and pundit desks, Megyn Kelly and Bret Baier having a chuckle over a report of dejected Democrats in Iowa “relocating to the cash bar… drinking and watching the TVs.” Fox was the first to call the GOP takeover of the Senate, which was not necessarily a political decision—it was Fox that notably broke the bad news to Karl Rove on air in 2012—but seemed appropriate. Up went the REPUBLICANS Gain Control of Senate graphic, complete with actual CGI fireworks.
But hell, what are fireworks when you have an entire skyscraper? CNN redoubled its commitment to explain the midterms with the loudest, flashiest, most explainy things that technology could create. It had, of course, John King’s magic wall, but there was also a electronic video wall of Ballot Cam reporters large enough to play multiple games of Hollywood Squares at once. There was martial theme music, which played so loud during the actual reports it sounded like someone was playing videogames in the studio. And to cap it off, the channel borrowed the Empire State Building in Manhattan, turning its crown flaming Republican red, presumably like the faces of many liberal New Yorkers that same night.
The results came in slowly throughout all the night, and then all at once, with calls avalanching in from key states between 10 and 11 p.m.. As the shape of the evening started to become clear, the broadcast network news crews came on air to analyze the night’s vote. And then, to immediately move past it. On NBC, Brian Williams turn to Andrea Mitchell, saying that a certain question was “why people hate the media,” then asked it anyway: what did she think this all means for 2016?
More and louder graphics, most likely. CNN might need to find a bigger building to light up.