Magazine article American Journalism Review

The Magic Lantern: Election Night Reminded Us How Wonderful Television Can Be

Magazine article American Journalism Review

The Magic Lantern: Election Night Reminded Us How Wonderful Television Can Be

Article excerpt

Easily the most frustrating moment of my editing career came in 1992, when I was deputy managing editor of the San Jose Mercury News. I was overseeing coverage of the scheduled execution of Robert Alton Harris, which, if it came off, would mark the resumption of the death penalty in California after a quarter-century. But all through the night and into the morning there were the predictable appeals and counterappeals. Would Harris wind up in San Quentin's gas chamber, or would he not?

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

About 2:30 a.m., we finally had to close the paper, saying in sizable headline type that we didn't know. By the time I opened that paper at home, say 6:30 a.m., Harris was stone dead, and every sentient Californian with a television knew it. A prisoner of my own deadline, I never felt more helpless or foolish.

So as I made myself stay up through the long night of election returns--otherwise known as "Waiting for Ohio"--I empathized with all those newspaper editors out there who were living my old nightmare. They had to close their editions saying the race between George Bush and John Kerry was "too close to call," when they knew damn well--as did all those millions of us in Insomniac Nation--that the president would prevail. And in fact, by the time those same papers hit the driveway, it was clear that he had.

Television news comes in for its share of criticism in this magazine, and not without reason. Our recent examination of how the industry uses its news stars to soap up elected officials and regulators, for instance, was as troubling as it was unsurprising (see "Lobbying Juggernaut," October/November). We knock TV for its addiction to crime stories, its "sweeps" travesties, its "SportsCenter" excesses, its retreat from city hall.

But staying up all night with Tim Russert and his white-board, channel-hopping from Fox to MSNBC to PBS to CNN to old standbys Tom, Peter and Dan, reminded me, again, what a wonder television can be. We take the good stuff for granted, but instead we should celebrate it.

Personally, for instance, I give thanks for CBS' "Sunday Morning," which for a generation has been one of the very best programs on the air. A true magazine, it offers something for everyone--from provocation to whimsy--and the viewer's intelligence is always assumed, never insulted. Charles Kuralt set its appealing and iconoclastic tone; his replacement, Charles Osgood, has respected that even as he's made the show his own. …

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