In "Election Night: A Television History," journalist Stephen Battaglio recounts the evolution of election night coverage, featuring behind-the-scenes anecdotes from industry professionals and momentous milestones in American history. Here's an excerpt.
“I watched Chet Huntley and David Brinkley all night, and at 8 o’clock in the morning I went to bed, thinking: That’s what I want to do with my life.”
- TOM BROKAW, Special Correspondent for NBC News
It was 7:19 A.M. in the East on November 9, 1960, when NBC’s David Brinkley announced that John F. Kennedy had been elected the 35th president of the United States. Nearly 52 years later, Tom Brokaw still remembered watching Brinkley call the Massachusetts senator’s narrow victory over Vice President Richard M. Nixon. At the time, the future NBC Nightly News anchor was an unsettled 20-year-old staying at his parents’ home in South Dakota. “I went off the rails for a couple years, like a lot of people did—you know, hell-raising, girls,” Brokaw recalled. “I had to drop out of college.” Yet even while he was personally adrift, he knew he had a passion for politics and was enthralled by NBC’s marathon coverage of the tight contest. Witnessing the dramatic finish filled him with a new sense of purpose. “I watched Chet Huntley and David Brinkley all night, and at 8 o’clock in the morning I went to bed, thinking: That’s what I want to do with my life.”
Two years later, Brokaw was a “newbie” in the newsroom of NBC’s affiliate station in Omaha. In 2012 he remembered a talk given by the station’s general manager after what had been a particularly uninspired local election night broadcast the night before. “He called us all together and he said, ‘Election nights are about storytelling.’ It made a big impression on me. Two years later I wrote the station’s handbook for election night. It was all anecdotal. It was about who all of these people running were. So when coverage began that night, I started the narrative. ‘We have a hardware dealer from Main Street in Beatrice, Nebraska, who is running for her first chance at being a member of the Nebraska legislature. She came out of nowhere, and . . . ,’ you know, and I’d try to do the narratives. And then I polished that when I first got to California in 1966. I was on the network a lot that night because it was so unexpected that Ronald Reagan had won the gubernatorial nomination for the Republicans. And Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty had given Governor Pat Brown a big run in the Democratic primary. I loved the drama—every election. It was kind of the thing I always thought I did best. Because it was always: Tell the story. Have a narrative arc for the evening.”
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It was a practice that served Brokaw well. Sixteen years after watching David Brinkley call the 1960 race Brokaw was sitting alongside him on the set of NBC’s election night coverage as former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter challenged the accidental incumbent, Gerald Ford. Brokaw noticed Brinkley’s habit of assembling a leather-bound notebook that he had at the ready every election night going back to 1956. The lined pages were tabbed into notebook that he had at the ready every election night going back to 1956. The lined pages were tabbed into sections, one for each state. Using three different-colored inks, he had jotted down facts about the campaign, electoral votes, key dates, and other concise notations (“NO R HAS EVER WON W/OUT OHIO”), from which he would draw through the night.
Brokaw was called to fill Brinkley’s election night co-anchor chair in 1980 when the veteran had to limit his appearances for health reasons. Brokaw had only two days notice, but he was prepared. “I stole that notebook idea from David,” he said. “He was an unspoken mentor of mine. I’d always listen to him.” Brokaw went on to lead NBC’s coverage from 1984 through 2004. He has remained a presence on the two presidential election nights that have followed, adding commentary to the coverage anchored by his successor on the NBC Nightly News, Brian Williams. The continuity from Brinkley to Brokaw to Williams is appropriate, as election night broadcasts have remained a tradition for the nation since the birth of network TV news in 1948. Presidential campaigns have become longer and more arduous, and the media landscape that covers them more diverse and complex. But every four years, the national election is a dramatic story that television still manages to tell better than any other medium.
“Election night reduces network television to the intimacy of Skype,” said Williams. “It’s filter-less. You really get to look in our eyes, and see us doing the math—or trying to—and see us struggling with a vast country, four time zones, and many congressional districts.” It’s an endurance test as well. “You’re in that chair all night,” Williams said. “If you go back through the archives, you can hear anchors saying, ‘Welcome back. It’s 8:00 on the East Coast’ with remnants of a sandwich in their voice. In my case, it’s banana Power Bars, grape-flavored Propel Vitamin Water, or a yellowed-around-the-edges, two-hour-old tuna sandwich. People bring you things to eat all night out of sheer guilt.”
The moments captured in this book present the surge of excitement and devastating disappointment that played out on every NBC election night telecast from Harry Truman’s comeback victory in 1948 through the groundbreaking night in 2008 when Barack Obama became the first African-American to win the race to the White House. The clips also show how the event made stars of the storytellers and fostered competition during the formative years of broadcast network news. Being the first to call a winner in a presidential race went a long way toward claiming network bragging rights. Every election cycle in those early years saw TV develop technological advancements to calculate and present the results in greater detail and with ever-accelerating speed. Adjusting to the faster flow of information wasn’t easy. Throughout the night in 1960, the networks’ computers issued projections that Nixon was going to lose—well before the actual results were in. We can only wonder whether the vice president would have been more open to disputing the outcome of the race—as many Republicans party leaders wanted him to do—had the prognostications of those machines not been repeated incessantly to millions of voters watching nationwide.
The emergence of 24-hour cable news ended the hegemony of the broadcast networks by the end of the 1980s. But the tradition of election night broadcasts has survived and will likely thrive well into the future even in an age when Americans can get information and news anytime through a handheld wireless device. When the next winner of a presidential election starts trending on Twitter, the original source will have been a man or a woman who presented it with emotion and context on ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, MSNBC, or Fox News. “There’s no soul to Twitter,” said Williams. “You may learn something first on your electronic device. It may be a good long while before you learn what it means.”
Excerpted from ELECTION NIGHT by Stephen Battaglio. Copyright (c) 2012 by Greg Smith. Reprinted by arrangement with NBC Publishing.
© 2012 MSNBC Interactive