As Election Night wore on, and on, and on, cable news outlets from Fox to MSNBC made sure to remind their viewers that this race wouldn’t be the usual sprint, but an exhaustive (and exhausting) marathon. Typically ready to call races as soon as possible, networks remained relatively committed to caution as millions of mail-in votes tallied up, urging viewers to hold off on judgment until they could more accurately see the bigger picture. If you’re someone who watches even a little cable news, this noticeable shift in presentation has been genuinely disorienting. The calls for caution represent a remarkable show of restraint by outlets built on making everything seem like everything is breaking all the time always — and that’s exactly why cable news as we know it today just isn’t made for a moment like this.
One of the most consequential media stories of this or any other generation is how cable has evolved the news into a constant 24/7 churn of cataclysmic reports. At any given time, you have your choice of a dozen networks fighting for the spotlight with loud commentary and louder graphics more appropriate for the Super Bowl than a Senate race. With hours upon hours to fill, pundits pore over every inch of material, invite each other to argue over every detail, find new ways to say the same things, wash, rinse, repeat. No story is too small to make huge; no angle is too silly to pursue, even if just for a few minutes to fill some dead air. Any trenchant commentary someone on cable news actually has inevitably gets buried by the sheer volume of other content, or else overshadowed by an irresistibly extreme guest with no nutritional value. Chyrons scroll endlessly through every hour, blaring “BREAKING NEWS” no matter what the “news” actually is. (Or, as we still saw far too often last night, a “BREAKING NEWS” alert can also signal that “there’s no further news at this time,” anyway.)
Having the wherewithal to take a beat and take stock of an unfolding situation with appropriate caution should be common practice. But patience is not a virtue for cable news, which runs on a steady diet of urgency and panic. Sometimes, stories really do warrant that combination. But it’s become harder and harder to discern which, since cable tends to present every single one at the same hysterical fever pitch.
This is made all too clear every increasingly bombastic Election Night. The extraordinary, unprecedented circumstances of this year’s election, however, are forcing 24-hour news to slow down in a way the medium both isn’t used to and isn’t good at. With nothing to do but wait for states to methodically count every vote, networks are finding themselves at something of a loss. There’s a reason that Steve Kornacki and John King’s big boards of data wisdom essentially took over MSNBC and CNN’s Election Night coverage: in taking a close look at the incrementally changing numbers, they were the only ones with anything new or substantially useful to say as everyone else was forced to sit on their hands and wait around for the news to happen faster.
So as they swim against an overwhelming current of their own making, cable news networks’ pleas for restraint from their audiences might as well be directed squarely at themselves. If nothing else, there’s a bittersweet irony to them asking for restraint after failing to exercise much of any itself for so long.