During the first several days after the election, many of America's leading pundits were very distressed. Some even appeared to be on the verge of freaking out as they vented major anxieties: It's upsetting that we still don't know who the next president will be! The financial markets could plunge! Other countries won't respect us!
Fortunately, cooler heads -- namely, the public -- prevailed. With the United States in its second post-election week while complicated legal proceedings unfolded in Florida, national opinion polls clearly indicated widespread patience rather than panic. Apparently, most Americans didn't mind waiting for final ballot tallies and court rulings -- despite all the agitation from media commentators frenetically projecting their own attitudes onto the body politic.
From the outset, numerous familiar voices on the cable TV networks were asserting that a winner should be declared -- in a hurry. On CNN, patrician news analyst Bill Schneider fretted aloud that the public would not take kindly to delays. The New York Times swiftly singled him out for praise in a Nov. 10 editorial that warned against dragging legal issues from the election into the courts.
"The CNN political commentator William Schneider picked apt language when he spoke of the 'treacherous path' that would-be leaders choose when they talk of unraveling the finality of elections," the Times editorial proclaimed. Such statements from powerful media outlets, transfixed with "finality" rather than accuracy in counting ballots, were music to the ears of key Republican operatives like James Baker. A classic blue-blooded political player, Baker wailed four days later that "the markets" were concerned "because they don't see any finality here."
On MSNBC, print journalists got lots of time in front of cameras as they eagerly repeated -- or tried to concoct -- conventional media wisdom. Typically, Evan Thomas of Newsweek joined with bombastic host Chris Matthews to beat the drums for preemptive closure. Chiming in was frequent guest Mike Barnicle of the New York Daily News. (Barnicle used to be a columnist on the staff of the Boston Globe, but he lost his job at that newspaper after it turned out that he had fabricated a story under his byline. So much for high standards of credibility at MSNBC.)
In effect, many commentators kept telling Americans that a quick count would be much more valuable than an accurate one. Such claims often had a paternalistic ring: It's better to move on. The country can't handle this kind of uncertainty.
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There were exceptions. Early on, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, a regular on the influential "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer," eloquently urged patience in support of a more complete tally. At the time, he was in a minority on that PBS program. But as days passed and the public showed scant signs of imitating the sky-is-falling commentators, the media climate improved.
A week after the election, when the "NewsHour" aired a roundtable discussion with columnists from the Washington Post, New York Times, Chicago Tribune and U.S. News & World Report, the tone was notably more judicious. The discourse included much recognition of the wisdom of waiting for the courts and manual recounting to sift the results in Florida.
No matter who finally wins the election, we should ponder why -- during the crucial days right after Nov. 7 -- so many journalists and news analysts were so disconnected from the public.
Many reporters and commentators who cover the national political scene reacted to the post-election uncertainties with alarm and dread -- and they strained to prod readers and viewers to follow suit. But most Americans declined to allow themselves to be stampeded by hyperventilating members of the punditocracy.
In this case, with the public's wisdom greatly exceeding their own, many of the country's most prestigious political journalists have felt compelled to cool their jets. Near the end of an election year with precious little to cheer about, that's good news.