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Outside Voices: Martin Plissner On Election Night Coverage

(AP / CBS)
Over the course of three decades, Martin Plissner helped guide political coverage at CBS News, serving as Executive Political Director of the network from 1980 until his retirement in 1997. Having joined CBS in 1963 as an associate producer, Plissner's encyclopedic knowledge of the political process was a valuable resource in covering campaigns, whether the story was the Iowa caucuses, brokered political conventions or election night drama. Plissner is also the author of "The Control Room – How Television Calls The Shots In Presidential Elections." I worked with Marty in the CBS Election Unit during the 1996 campaign and asked him to weigh in on this year's election night network coverage. His response follows below. As always, the opinions expressed and factual assertions made in "Outside Voices" are those of the author, not ours, and we seek a wide variety of voices. Here's Marty:

Dear Vaughn,

It's been ten years since I last spent an election night inside a broadcast studio. Since you invited me, after a decade on the outside, to appraise the current state of these broadcasts, I flipped the channels Tuesday on three TVs and a couple of VCRs. Here are some reflections on what I saw.

When the anchor on an election broadcast says there may be a "long night ahead of us," it's usually a tight presidential contest like the last two or 1960. But when Brian Williams said it repeatedly Tuesday night, there was not an electoral vote in sight.

It's hard to recall an off-year election with so much suspense about the outcome. Yes, there had been other years in which control of Congress changed – or might have. But it's hard to think of one about which so many people seemed to care.

In another rare development, all three of the ancestral network broadcasts were being led by a rookie anchor, each replacing a predecessor who had been doing it for twenty years or so. As you might expect of the network whose nightly news opens with echoes of anchors dating back half a century, NBC's Williams had his own predecessor sitting right beside him, Tom Brokaw, along with Tim Russert, in a cluster that sometimes left it unclear who was supposed to be doing what.

Charlie Gibson, the third ABC anchor since the passing of Peter Jennings, brought an intuitive grasp of the stakes and the lore of American politics, which were never part of the Jennings make-up. In the ex officio Sancho Panza role that Sunday talk show hosts have assumed in these broadcasts, George Stephanopoulos has become an accomplished rival to Russert and Bob Schieffer. The ABC broadcast was easy to watch.

At CBS, indeed in network broadcasting, Dan Rather is of course irreplaceable. For better or worse, he's unique. (Dan could be seen Tuesday night on "The Daily Show," revealing a unique lack of aptitude for sit-down comedy.) Katie herself will in time create a style of her own for holding court at an election, but it was still a work in progress Tuesday night. She could start by dropping 90% of the "keys" she attaches to every this or that which comes along.

The changing of the guard at CBS did not end with the anchor desk. Gone too were some of the standbys of my own era, the broadcasting titans on loan from "60 Minutes." To one of the tasks they left behind, Gloria Borger brought the tried and true perspectives of a full-time political reporter. To another, converting the day's exit poll data into commentary, Anthony Mason was more than adequate. Bob Schieffer, who admirably bridged the interval between Dan and Katie at PM News, provided much of the broadcast's grade "A" wisdom and was the last major stalwart left from broadcasts past.

One consequence of the network pools in place since 1990 is that all the gifted newspeople engaged in reporting Tuesday night's story, in whatever newsroom, had for the most part the same source of information about winners and losers and, from survey data also provided by the pool the same resource for much of their commentary. Watching the different broadcasts, you found a rich variety of personalities, graphics and attempts at colorful language, but the content across the board tended to be much the same.

Take the information first. All of the "raw vote" returns, as we used to call them, come, via the National Election Pool, from a single source: the Associated Press. It's where nearly all the horse race information about the House came from Tuesday night. It was also what all the broadcasts relied on at the bitter end to tell who had won any statewide contest, most importantly those for the Senate, when all else had failed.

For most of the public, and in the network budgets, "all else" means one thing: EXIT POLLS, the unique contribution of CBS News to Western civilization (they're used, of course, in the Far East too.)

Oddly enough, however, for almost any contest you might have been in doubt about before the polls OPENED, they are usually useless. On Tuesday they enabled all the networks to declare, before a single vote was counted in Vermont and Indiana, that Bernie Sanders had been elected to the Senate and Dick Lugar re-elected. Big deal. You knew that a month ago. On the other hand, when the polls closed on most of the close contests on which Senate control was supposed to depend, few of the network decision desks chose to gamble on the polling place surveys for which they'd paid so sizable a bundle.

Why? Because exit polls happen to be very blunt instruments – vulnerable not only to sampling error but politically skewed refusal rates, shaky interviewer skills, lots of things.

So, unless the exit poll shows a large margin for one of the candidates, no decision desk in its right mind is apt to base a call on it. After that you have to wait for real votes to be collected in precinct and later, county models.

For a number of years in the 1990s the networks encouraged their own statisticians to make individual judgments as to when the models showed a winner. This indeed offered incentives for channel-hopping to impatient viewers. But six years ago the competitive pursuit of election night truth hit a brick wall in Florida and two other states. The aftermath was not pretty. None of the networks, so far as I know, has been bragging about how many times they called races first on Tuesday. And, for the third election in a row since Bloody 2000, nobody seems to have called a race wrong.

So what exactly are these notorious exit polls, about which arguments are eternally waged on so many grounds, doing for the people who pay for them? More specifically, what did they do Tuesday night?

That brings us to the commentary (or, if you prefer, "analysis") offered on the broadcasts. The ballots handed out at the precincts do not simply ask people how they voted. It asked them about their age, race, religion, sex, income and lots of other things. It asked them, too, about issues or feelings that affected how they vote. So when an anchor, to take Katie as an example, said in the opening lines of Tuesday's broadcast, "What are the voters saying about the man who is not on the ballot?" she had lots of answers – since G.W. was all over the NEP ballot designed and shared among the networks.

Every show I watched Tuesday (except ABC's, where Stephanopoulos handled it) had a correspondent whose unique task it was to report survey findings. In nearly every case, the same findings dominated commentary on the broadcasts: voting to spite Bush or support him, over national or local issues, importance of Iraq or terrorism, right track or wrong track – with past trends on the questions readily at hand. (Oddly enough, the hot-button issue in debate over the 2004 poll, "value voters," is still around for anyone who didn't get enough of it last time -- 56% rated "value issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion" as "extremely or very important" in determining their House vote, just two percentage points behind Iraq, a "statistical tie" so to speak.)

Getting back to that "long night ahead of us," this did not mean any of the broadcast networks (the ones whose stations are licensed in "the public interest") was planning to keep their broadcasts going until they had reported fully to the country what its people had accomplished at the polls that day. As it turned out, of course, they had accomplished a lot. But when the clock turned 11, and in one case 12, the companies that assumed such responsibility (with some pounding on their chests by the industry oligarchs nearly 80 years ago) more or less checked out for the night.

As the end of NBC's 10 to 11 special approached, Russert's signature white slate chalk board, with district to district tabulations of the House results, still left Nancy Pelosi seven seats short of the 215 needed for the speakership, so he went off screen to see if he could scare up the seats some place.

Moments later it turned out to be unnecessary. Out of nowhere, it seemed, Williams announced, "We can now confirm our projection that Democrats will control the House of Representatives, 231 to 204." Where did the anchor just find a couple dozen? We're never told. Presumably there was a House model in the backroom. In any case this projection ex machina allowed NBC to declare victory and go home. As the successors to Huntley and Brinkley and Chancellorclosed out their broadcast in the middle of the most important off-year election of our times, there was one saving grace. NBC, said Williams, would "continue our coverage with our colleagues on MSNBC all through the night."

And what a job those colleagues did! Chris Matthews had been taking leftovers on the remotes and celebrity gets of the topside NBC stars. Now all those resources, and the cable time, were his. With his own monstrous appetite for the slash and burn of real world politics and surrounded by such life-long practitioners as Bob Shrum and Pat Buchanan, Matthews put on a compelling show for hours, offering treats like a pitiless dissection of Hillary Clinton's victory speech along with continuing developments on the race for Senate control as well as the magnitude of the Democratic takeover in the House. Couric had been prone to talk Tuesday night about having fun, but the fellow who was having the time of his life in the early hours of Wednesday, could be seen doing it on MSNBC.

At ABC, which gave its viewers an extra half hour of election news up front on its broadcast special, there would be another bonus half during the "Nightline" period in which it could award Pelosi her speakership based on votes.

And at CBS as the clock approached eleven, we heard from the anchor desk: "As we leave you tonight, the battle goes on for control of the House and the Senate. You can follow it at on our Web site at CBSNews.com" CBS, like NBC, had a house model but for reasons not entirely clear declined to report anything about it before its election special left the air. Moments after it did, having noticed perhaps the NBC call (or perhaps by coincidence) it sent out the projection of a Democratic House to its affiliates for them to air on their own. Did broadcast television's abandonment of one of the country's most important stories to its Web sites provide its viewers with a vision of the future? Could presidential elections be next?

Finally, Vaughn, thanks for inviting me to spend election night as a reporter on your beat. With six more or less simultaneous shows to keep an eye on, some of which (notably Fox, which I'd hoped to check in on, and CNN, where an evening without Blitzer, Schneider and Greenfield is an evening well spent) it was fairly hectic. It would have been even more hectic had I paid enough attention to what might well become the election night medium of choice in years to come, especially as the all-stars of television grow increasingly content to hand the story over as it peaks: the Web sites, which for the time being remain backstreet spin-offs of their television proprietors. Tapping into them efficiently takes a little practice for which I'll be better prepared next time. By far the most manageable were CNN and CBS.

Thanks again.
Marty