The Spectacle of Return
The gamification of election journalism
In recent years, election night has become election week or even election month. In some states, like California, Arizona, Alaska, or Maine, vote counting is an interminable process. Because we have few federal election regulations, there are fifty states with fifty different voting procedures. There are election deniers protesting and observers observing. Taken as a whole, it’s a carnival of the grotesque. Journalists are carnies, beckoning us to try our hand at an unwinnable game we are forced to pay for in one way or another.
Under the guise of sharing election night news, networks have created programming that frames the results as an interminable episode of American Gladiator. Whether it’s one of the major networks or cable news, there are elaborate sets making great use of technology. Anchors pontificate until their mouths run dry, regurgitating the same information over and over because that’s what fuels the economic engine of the twenty-four hour news cycle.
When winners are announced, there is bombastic, vaguely patriotic music and graphic flourish. After the anchors have exhausted themselves with speculation about especially tight races, they turn to one another to prognosticate about the state of democracy, how the returns are or are not meeting expectations, how things might pan out, what the polls did or did not say, and what we’ve learned from exit polling. And inevitably, as they banter and prattle, they amuse themselves and each other—laughing, sometimes braying, making it clear that no matter the outcome, they will largely be unaffected, that really this is all a game to them. It is all deeply unserious while begetting serious consequences.
Even newspapers have gotten in on the act, with elaborate data presentations like The New York Times dreaded probability meter trembling left or right reflecting the algorithmic probability of possible election outcomes. There are live updates and tools and special sections to keep people minutely informed about the vagaries of the current political landscape. It’s great that data is being made accessible in these ways. The political process is slightly more scrutable and we are slightly more informed than we might otherwise be. Yet many of these graphic presentations minimize what’s at stake with voting returns, making the data seem like nothing but part of an overly complex video game. In reality, lives are at stake whether it’s people in Ukraine counting on American support to fight Putin’s invasion whose lives would be further endangered if a Republican controlled Senate enacted a federal abortion ban or trans kids being denied access to healthcare if the wrong politician becomes governor of the state they live in.
Data nerds gleefully aggregate and dissect polling leading into an election and then after they sift through return data, continuing to offer analyses. When they get it horribly wrong, which happens regularly, they do little to acknowledge that some things cannot be predicted. When they get things right, they bask in the tepid glow of that success and act like being right about one subject once endows one with the ability, nay, the responsibility of feigning expertise on any number of subjects from global politics to pandemics to the economy.
I am human and I am not immune to the spectacle. I like to be entertained, too. I usually watch MSNBC because their anchors and pundits are the most tolerable and have a fair understanding of sociopolitical issues. Throughout election broadcast nights, Rachel Maddow collates her papers, tapping them firmly on the desk while she stares into the camera and asks leading rhetorical questions. It’s clear what conclusion she wants her audience to draw. She’s smart, she knows it, and doesn’t pretend she has no opinions about the news on which she reports. On election night 2022, she was flanked by MSNBC’s biggest hitters, other than the egregiously fired Tiffany Cross—Joy Reid, Chris Hayes, Nicole Wallace, and Ari Melber.
During each segment, Maddow would kick off the conversation and her colleagues would weigh in. There was a lot of laughter. A surprising amount of laughter, really, given the matters at hand. They were at an intimate cocktail party with millions of people watching and gravely important issues hanging in the balance. The gravity of what was at stake was largely absent. When there was an update, any kind of update no matter how inconsequential, the banter would suddenly pause, Maddow would go serious and make a somber announcement, accompanied by intense graphics, suffused with blue and red. Either it was a landslide or the winning candidate just eked out a victory or it was too soon to make a call or it was too close to make a call. As calls were made, that bombastic, vaguely patriotic music would play again. The cocktail party resumed.
And then there was Steve Kornacki who enthused his way into viewers’ hearts during the 2020 election with his boundless energy, ability to talk endlessly while keeping us up to date on the twists and turns of the most important races across the country. With his sensible button down shirts barely masking a toned physique and ill-fitting khakis that only make him more endearing, Kornacki was always moving and enthusiastically tapping his smart screens covered with county maps in every state, comparing current election returns with previous ones, introducing niche voting vocabularies into our vernacular. When he wrote on the smart screen with his green pen, it made whatever he wrote seem very, very important. When he got intensely granular with numbers, he talked so fast, I could barely keep up as he showed how Warnock was faring against how Biden fared in DeKalb county or how Lauren Boebert was doing compared to Donald Trump’s 2020 numbers in Pueblo County.