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Four more years --with CNN: CNN's election coverage ranks high in broadcasting history--comprehensive, well organized and directed, and very professional.

THE 2012 PRESIDENTIAL campaign and election warranted the most comprehensive media coverage in television history. As in 2008, CNN led the field covering the 2012 presidential race. Attracting more viewers than any other station, the network upheld its motto as "America's Choice," covering every aspect of the election, including early Republican elimination debates, both conventions, speeches of the candidates throughout the campaign, presidential debates, the vice presidential debate, and election night. Throughout the convention, debates, and election night coverage, CNN devoted more time and personnel to the 2012 events than to its 2008 Emmy Award-winning coverage.

The "best political team on TV" includes CNN's regular anchors--Wolf Blitzer ("The Situation Room"), Anderson Cooper ("360"), John King (former anchor of "USA" and now chief national reporter), Erin Burnett ("Up Front"), Piers Morgan ("Tonight"), Candy Crowley ("State of the Union" and chief political correspondent), and Soledad O'Brien ("CNN Presents"). CNN's analysts and correspondents include David Gergen (senior political analyst), Gloria Borger (chief political analyst), Jessica Yellin (chief White House correspondent), Donna Bash (senior congressional correspondent), and Jeffry Toobin (legal analyst). Several former presidential advisors--such as James Carville, Mary Matilin, Paul Begala, Alex Castellanos, Ari Fleischer, and Donna Brazile--often participated in panel discussions.

The network also engaged field reporters for interviews and special feature contributions. Central to conventions, debates, and election night coverage, panel discussions always included Republicans and Democrats, men and women, and minorities.

CNN's coverage of the conventions not only was comprehensive but unique in several ways. Other stations covered evening activities, whereas CNN covered entire days of both conventions--starting in the morning and continuing well past the last gavel. Reporters interviewed delegates on the floor, gave commentary from the skybox, and broadcast speeches from the stage. In the studio, discussion panels convened, and King utilized his "magic wall" for relating statistics--charts, maps, and graphs. At appropriate times, CNN played videos of interviews with candidates and other political personalities. The network introduced "Fact Check," whereby a brief factual account followed replays of misinformation presented in speeches. The technique revealed untruths, partial truths, and borderline stretches of the imagination.

During the Republican Convention, reporters played videos of interviews with GOP candidate Mitt Romney, including three videos shown previously as CNN specials: "Romney and the Mormon Faith," "Romney Revealed," and an interview with the five Romney sons. Highlights of the convention included speeches by Romney, VP candidate Paul Ryan, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and especially Ann Romney and former Pres. George W. Bush. Another high (or low) point of the convention was actor Clint Eastwood's monologue to an empty chair.

At the subsequent Democratic Convention, CNN reporters interviewed important Democrats on the convention floor and played previously recorded videos, including "Obama Revealed, the Man, the President," Yellin's interview with then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and a special about the Obama family. The second night featured a tribute to Sen. Ted Kennedy (D.-Mass.), emphasizing his ties to Obama; Blitzer's interview with widow Vicki Kennedy followed. Later in the convention, Pres. Barack Obama, Vice Pres. Joseph Biden, and Michelle Obama all made major speeches. However, it was former Pres. Bill Clinton's 48-minute speech that stole the show--CNN panelists deemed it his best ever.

The 2012 debates, meanwhile, drew a record 70,000,000 viewers compared to 57,000,000 in 2008 and 53,000,000 in 2004. Although all major stations carried them, CNN offered more pre- and post-debate hours and assigned a record number of staff to each encounter. During all four debates, CNN arranged focus groups of undecided voters in nondebate locales. Hosted by a CNN moderator, these undecided voters communicated their approval or disapproval of what candidates said via a handheld meter that produced continuous lines at the bottom of TV screens--one line for women's reactions, another for men's. In "The Situation Room," Blitzer communicated with moderators who interviewed members of their group. Responses from focus groups indicated debates do make a significant impact on voters' choices. Based on composite polls, Blitzer followed each debate with national percentages of voters favoring each candidate. Convened after each debate, CNN panelists provided enlightening, spirited, and sometimes humorous responses.

The first presidential debate took place Oct. 3, on the University of Denver (Colo.) campus, where Jim Lehrer (of PBS's "Newshour") moderated his 12th such event. It focused on domestic policy. From their podiums, the candidates faced Lehrer, who had his back to the audience. CNN engaged communication professionals to interpret nonverbal facial expressions, stance, and gestures, while Crowley interviewed Rob Portman, Romney's practice debate opponent.

Obama's weak performance resulted in some disparaging comments from the postdebate panel: Gergen speculated, "There is no chance of Obama's winning big now"; Borger commented, "Obama was trying to avoid any risk." Burnett reported results of her focus group--several of the 39 members admitted the debate had influenced the way they would vote. Blitzer displayed polls of voters--67% considered Romney the winner; Obama, 25%. More importantly, donations for Obama's campaign began to fall off, whereas Romney's coffers were bolstered.

The second presidential debate (Oct. 16 at Hofstra University, Hempstead, N.Y.), focusing on domestic and foreign issues, brought distinction to Crowley, the first woman in 20 years to moderate a presidential debate. Beforehand, Yellin and Borger interviewed the candidates' wives. King showed clips of town hall presidential debates from previous years to familiarize viewers with the format. Eighty-two undecided voters formed a semicircle around the seated candidates and Crowley at a desk. From questions submitted by the undecided voters, Crowley called on individuals to ask their questions.

Obama, much better coached for this encounter, proved more aggressive and, at times, seemed to "stalk" Romney. The candidates often left their chairs and stood face to face talking over each other. As the last speaker, Obama used his two-minute closing time to criticize Romney--a ploy for which Romney had no defense. The postdebate panelists termed this a "real debate" during which Obama made a strong comeback and "blunted Romney's momentum after the first debate."

Before the third debate (Oct. 22, Lynn University, Boca Raton, Fla.), CNN featured videos of Crowley, Blitzer, and Fareed Zakaria (CNN host of "GPS") interviewing, respectively, Romney, Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.), and Clinton. Panelists speculated about candidates' approaches to issues and the degree to which they would interact. Bob Schieffer (CBS news chief and host of "Face the Nation") moderated the relatively formal question-and-answer debate. Inasmuch as Schieffer and the candidates sat at the same table, the candidates showed considerable restraint: Obama in particular was less physically aggressive. In Orlando, Fla., O'Brien hosted a focus group of 25 undecided voters.

Panelists' analyses of the debate proved extremely informative. Cooper replayed excerpts to direct specific discussions among panelists. King considered Obama the winner; Gergen termed Romney the victor. Castellanos commented, "Obama was aggressive, but Romney passed the leadership test." Crowley sensed that "Obama came to attack and Romney to agree."

Scheduled between the first and second presidential debates, the VP event (Oct. 11 at Centre College, Danville, Ky.) gained importance as a result of the unexpected outcome of the first Romney-Obama clash. The VP debate featured Martha Raddatz (senior foreign affairs correspondent for "ABC News") as moderator. Questions covered domestic and foreign policy. Raddatz asked intelligent, direct questions and maintained control of time: two minutes for answers and closing statements. Biden frequently created distractions by laughing at Ryan's answers, shaking his head, and making side comments while Ryan spoke.

As for Election Day, CNN's flexibility of staging and utilization of staff optimized its election night coverage: for the most part, Blitzer directed the overall program; from the magic wall King interpreted data, analyzed previous voting patterns, projected possible voting trends, and confirmed voting results as they occurred; Cooper moderated the panelists, sometimes moving between two panels of political specialists. In all, 25 panelists served at sometime during the afternoon and evening.

King and his map and Blitzer with interviews (live and prerecorded) covered preliminary information to set the stage for panel discussions. Everyone expected election night to be a long one--the election could be very close, and Ohio had a voting problem (visions of 2000). Early in the afternoon, panels discussed the events between conventions and election night: candidates' speeches, the impact of candidates' wives, the Supreme Court ruling on Super PAC contributions, and how candidates stood on major issues.

CNN kept its viewers informed of candidates' speaking schedules; frequently replayed excerpts from earlier speeches, often as a part of a CNN commentary; and broadcast all major speeches live. The candidates crisscrossed the nation and delivered hundreds of speeches; they visited battleground states several times--occasionally speaking in the same state at the same time. In assessing that candidates spoke less viciously about their opponents during the 2012 campaign, panelists theorized that, because Super PACs financed and produced a nonrelenting salvo of TV attack ads, the candidates could malign less. The panelists considered both candidates excellent speakers, but gave the edge to Obama.

Panelists discussed the impact of the candidates' wives, whose popularity outranked that of their husbands. In previous elections, most candidates' wives had minimal influence. In the 2012 race, however, Michelle Obama and Ann Romney proved to be excellent speakers who campaigned before many and varied audiences. During election night, CNN replayed interviews with both, who enlightened the public about the kinder, gentler, family natures of their husbands. Audiences appreciated and respected Mrs. Romney, but she failed to convince many voters that the Romneys understood the plight of the poor. Mrs. Obama had learned the ropes during her tenure as first lady. She devoted herself to non-controversial causes: fighting child obesity, helping military families, and improving the lives of underprivileged children. Her convention speech ranked second only to that of Clinton. The panelists, whose comments were warm and friendly, obviously felt positive about both women.

With the issue of campaign financing, panelists revisited the Supreme Court's Super PAC decision, which made possible the most expensive election in history, as unchecked Super PACs spent indiscriminately to fill evening TV with relentless attack ads courtesy of the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United u Federal Election Commission (2009).

In 2008, "Hillary: The Movie" was defined by the Federal Election Commission as "electioneering communication," and that its showing had to be stopped according to the McCain-Feingold law. When the case reached the Supreme Court, five Justices leaned to the right and voted to find the funding part of the law unconstitutional because it limited the "free speech of corporations and unions." CNN panelists recalled how Obama, in his 2010 State of the Union Address, criticized members of the Court (sitting directly in front of him) for "reversing a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests. ..."

Republican panelists concentrated on the huge national debt the country faces as a result of Obama's attempt to hold off a depression--enormous sums to keep the auto industry from bankruptcy and money used to preclude banks and other financial institutions from going under. Panelists agreed that no president had been reelected with such a financial burden. Democrats on the panel criticized Romney for the way he had made his millions, his stand on the auto industry (bankruptcy), his changed stand on abortion, his position on immigration (alienated Hispanic voters), and his opposition to gay marriage (Obama supported gay marriage just before the election). Actually Romney had little choice--he had to go along with the positions dictated by the Republican Party--a party fragmented with competing goals. Republicans had difficulty defending Romney's position on several issues.

Once the polls began to close, King, a phenomenal statistician with a remarkable memory, fascinated the audience with a large map on which he displayed states expected to vote Republican (red) or Democrat (blue). He provided statistics comparing the 2008 voting record with expected 2012 voting. Throughout the night, he concentrated on the must win or battleground states and frequently highlighted various parts of important states--the most contested sections, cities, and even specific areas within dries.

Blitzer kept many of the big screens busy throughout election night. As results came in, the number of electoral votes appeared on one of the large screens; Romney took an early lead, then Obama steadily advanced toward election. Screens displayed interviews with CNN reporters in major cities throughout the country, in various tabulation rooms, and in candidates' "victory" rooms where supporters were watching TV for results. Based on statistics from CNN's tabulation room, Blitzer announced winners state by state before voting became final.

With heightened enthusiasm, he always began, "CNN can now declare. ..." Toobin explained the legal aspects of the voting problem in Ohio, where 20,000 provisional ballots potentially could delay the final results. As the election progressed, and Obama headed for reelection, panelists analyzed the reasons for the President's upcoming victory. Their discussions remained engaging as they awaited Obama's acceptance speech and Romney's concession.

In concluding, CNN's election night coverage speculated about where Obama would lead the nation during the next four years.

Raymond L. Fischer is Mass Media Editor of USA Today and professor emeritus of communication at the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks.
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Title Annotation:Mass Media
Author:Fischer, Raymond L.
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:Mar 1, 2013
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