Election coverage an unexpected thrill ride on TV

DAVID BAUDER
Associated Press
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In this image released by CBS, CBS News Contributor Bob Schieffer, from left, CBS This Morning co-host Gayle King, CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley, CBS This Morning co-host Norah O\'Donnell, Face the Nation anchor John Dickerson and CBS This Morning co-host Charlie Rose host 2016 election night coverage on Nov. 8, 2016, at the CBS Broadcast Center in New York. (Michele Crowe/CBS via AP)

NEW YORK (AP) — Donald Trump's stunning victory against Hillary Clinton in the presidential election Tuesday was a final twist in a made-for TV thrill ride — and a stern lesson to journalists to avoid leaping to conclusions.

Relying on polls and group think, television networks began covering election night with a barely concealed assumption that Clinton would win, only to see the actual results suggest something quite different. Tens of millions of Americans followed the drama on all manner of screens as the drama stretched into the early morning.

The Associated Press declared that Trump had won the presidency at 2:30 a.m. EST. Within 10 minutes, CNN reported that Clinton had called Trump to concede. Except for the AP, the politicians beat media organizations: CNN called the race for Trump as the Republican took the stage at his Manhattan headquarters, and CBS, ABC and NBC did the same as he spoke.

"Donald Trump is the first person to be elected president without previously holding office since Dwight Eisenhower," said CBS' Scott Pelley. "And he did it without the advantage of having won World War II.

Less than an hour earlier, Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta had announced that the Democrat would not be addressing her supporters that night. That triggered a bitter argument on CNN that spoke to the challenge in healing the nation after a rough campaign.

Former Trump campaign chairman Corey Lewandowski, now a CNN analyst, was angered by Clinton's decision not to come out and said Trump would be criticized for making the same decision. "Corey, you're a horrible person right now," said analyst and Clinton supporter Van Jones.

The election results offered a stern rebuke to pollsters — few of whom predicted a Trump victory — newspaper editorial boards and the Hollywood establishment, which lined up almost unanimously behind Clinton. The post-election period will include soul-searching for those institutions as well as politicians.

"I am sitting here surprised by the fact that we were surprised by this, in a campaign full of surprises," said ABC News' Cecilia Vega.

The much-followed Upshot blog on The New York Times website had a meter predicting the chances of each candidate winning. It began Tuesday with an 85 percent certainty that Clinton would win, and flipped as the evening went on to a near certainty of a Trump win.

Television networks, concentrating on the electoral college and paths to victory for each of the candidates, also spent virtually no time discussing the possibility that Clinton could win the popular vote and lose the election.

Analysts spoke of Trump's unexpected strength in rural areas, with CNN's David Axelrod calling it a "primal scream on behalf of voters who are disenfranchised with the status quo." MSNBC's Brian Williams called it a failure of prognosticators to take into account how many lawn signs Trump inspired as opposed to Clinton.

"This is a revolt of the unprotected class against the protected elite class," said Fox News Channel's Monica Crowley.

A chorus of I-told-you-so's is also likely in coming days. NBC News' Kasie Hunt noted as she traveled with Clinton during the last week of the campaign that it went from small staged events to other small staged events. She said it did not feel like she was covering a winning campaign. "And I took some criticism for that from some sources," she said.

CNN's Jones grew emotional when talking about how many Americans are going to struggle waking up on Wednesday and telling their children what happened. "This was a whitelash against a changing country," Jones said, and many newer Americans will feel threatened by it.

It was a far different mood while the polls were still open. Vice Media and Slate collaborated on a system that combined exit polling with early voting profiles to project candidate vote totals in seven battleground states and posted the material throughout the day on Tuesday. Clinton was leading Tuesday afternoon in all seven of the states, according to the VoteCastr model.

Television networks vowed to stick with tradition and not reveal that information. But it was hard to miss some foreshadowing.

Trump called in to Fox News Channel shortly after 2 p.m. EST, where he talked about a rigged electoral system and passed up the chance to exhort supporters to vote. Fox interviewer Martha MacCallum asked him four questions about what he might do if he lost.

Shortly thereafter, Republican National Committee aide Sean Spicer on Fox offered a very specific prediction — that Trump's electoral vote total would exceed those of President Barack Obama's two opponents — without predicting victory. Republican pollster Ed Rollins told Fox's Shepard Smith at 3 p.m. EST that it would take a miracle for Trump to win.

CNN correspondent Brianna Keilar, covering the Clinton campaign, told Wolf Blitzer shortly after 5 p.m. EST that the Clinton camp was confident heading into the evening.

"I hear they're confident," Blitzer said. "Are they very, very confident or are they nervous?"

Responded Keilar: "I'm not picking up any nerves."

Five hours later, Keilar noted the stunned faces on people at Clinton headquarters on Manhattan's West Side. They came expecting a party — maybe even an early night — and left contemplating the prospect of a President Trump.

Even before the polls closed, there were warnings not to jump to conclusions too early. "Please keep in mind, exit polls can shift faster than a feather in a tornado," tweeted former CBS News anchor Dan Rather, in his familiar folksy style.

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AP Television Writer Lynn Elber in Los Angeles contributed to this report.