(AP) – In an impatient age of social media and instant communication, a close presidential election on Tuesday forced patience upon an army of journalists anxious for answers.
Hours after some of the first polls closed, news organizations said most states that were considered true battlegrounds were too close to call. Burned eight years ago by early exit polls that proved misleading, there was care taken not to draw too many conclusions this time — partly, as CBS’ Bob Schieffer said, because many of the findings were contradictory.
“This is going to be one of the great nail-biters tonight,” said Chris Matthews on MSNBC.
Two of the three biggest broadcast networks had new leaders in place for presidential election night coverage. Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos teamed on ABC, and Scott Pelley led the CBS coverage. Brian Williams was back in the anchor seat at NBC.
But 2012 was notable for the vast array of outlets that an interested consumer could command to create their own media experience on different screens, with web sites offering deep drill-downs in data and social media hosting raucous conversations.
A still-unclear picture early in the evening led to some tortured language on television. “We are not in receipt of any information that we’re trying to hint about,” said NBC’s Brian Williams before 9 p.m. EST. “All we’re saying is, if you’re in the Romney organization, you would probably like some of these battlegrounds to have closed by now, or very soon.”
News outlets carefully parsed information and sometimes used the same facts for contradictory conclusions.
Fox News analyst Brit Hume noted an exit poll finding that 42 percent of voters said Superstorm Sandy was an important factor in their vote, suggesting that was a positive for President Barack Obama since he was widely considered to have been effective in his response. With the same information, the web site Politico headlined: “Exit Survey: Sandy Not a Factor.”
On CBS, Scott Pelley noted that exit polls and early returns in Ohio seemed to be breaking Obama’s way. Yet GOP strategist Karl Rove, a Fox analyst, used a white board to indicate county-by-county turnout results looked positive for Republican Mitt Romney.
“Nobody has made more out of more fragmentary returns,” Fox’s Chris Wallace said.
There was a certain amount of vamping for time. Glenn Beck’s online network, The Blaze, had a blackboard straight out of the 1960s as a tote board. Beck killed time on the air by asking for cookie dough ice cream from the on-set food bar.
“Waffle cone, please,” Beck said.
When ABC’s Diane Sawyer asked David Muir for the latest news from the Romney campaign, he reported the family had pasta for dinner and the candidate indulged in his favorite peanut butter and honey sandwich.
Fox News was most insistent on warning its viewers not to draw too many conclusions from exit polls, yet conversely spent the most time taking direction from them.
Commentator Bill O’Reilly said the Romney campaign had decided to take no chances and ride out its victory in the first debate until election day. That would have worked if it had not been for Sandy, which rendered Romney’s campaign invisible for several days because of storm coverage.
If Obama wins, “Sandy is one of the reasons,” he said.
The media personality with perhaps the most on the line was Nate Silver of The New York Times, whose FiveThirtyEight blog was sought out by 20 percent of the people who visited the newspaper’s website on Monday. He has used statistical data throughout the campaign to predict an Obama victory and by Tuesday, had forecast a 90.9 percent chance that Obama would win.
CNN’s Wolf Blitzer was an excitable host, exclaiming “wow” when a close result popped on the screen. John King’s computer screen promoted confusion because it painted states red or blue based on incoming votes and not, as is usually the case, after the network had projected the race.
On ABC, Diane Sawyer’s relaxed, folksy delivery drew social media attention. The rock group They Might Be Giants tweeted: “and Diane Sawyer declares tonight’s winner is … chardonnay!”
Four years after she was CBS’ top anchor, talk show host Katie Couric joined ABC to monitor social media reaction.
Television Writer Frazier Moore contributed to this report.