Television's coverage of yesterday's Super Tuesday primaries conjured up the cynical aphorism that the voters simply go to the polls to validate the projections of political pollsters.
Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, yesterday morning's mere frontrunner, became last night's all-but-official Democratic nominee. And, thank heavens for that, at least from the perspective of the punditocracy, which was finally able to focus on the expected match-up between Kerry and President Bush.
Two weeks ago, the unexpected momentum of North Carolina Sen. John Edwards twisted the press like a pretzel. The members of the mouthy class had to figure out new ways to take him seriously even as they noted that he had won but a single primary -- and that in the only other state named Carolina.
At the outset of last night's primary coverage, observers kept questioning what it would take for Edwards to stick around. "Is this the day that John Kerry knows for sure that it will be him?" ABC's Peter Jennings asked last night at the start of World News Tonight.
On PBS' NewsHour, David Brooks, a conservative columnist for The New York Times, suggested Edwards would need three primary wins to survive. Liberal syndicated columnist Mark Shields responded that Edwards would only need two. By late last night, he looked unlikely to land even one win.
As the extent of Kerry's victories were translated from predictions to results -- insert your own punch line about the Lord of the Rings' Oscar sweep here -- you could hear relief seep into the voices of the TV news pros.
After the fiasco of the 2000 presidential election, when exit polling utterly failed in Florida, and the surprises of this January's Iowa caucuses, in which the campaign of the then-presumptive front-runner (remember Howard Dean?) imploded despite conventional wisdom, the media establishment seemed delighted to be able to tell such an uncomplicated story.
CNN's Wolf Blitzer projected "landslide" wins in New York and several other states for Kerry. CNN's Larry King, several months ahead of the Democratic convention that formalizes this sort of thing, called Kerry "the Democratic nominee."
Nonetheless, such clarity didn't prevent television commentators from casting about for the reasons for Kerry's victories. It was Democratic die-hards' deep desire to dethrone Bush. (TV loves alliteration.) It was concern about the economy. The Times' Brooks made the case for the appeal of aristocrats like Kerry and Bush, both from families of bluebloods. Others said national security propelled Kerry, a decorated Vietnam War veteran. Some noted the strong support that Kerry commanded among black voters.
But given that Edwards struck a more populist tone than Kerry, talking directly about poverty, race, class and trade, no one satisfactorily explained why Kerry did better among African-Americans, those who are financially anxious and die-hard liberals, other than their hunger to win.
Fox News was the most aggressive television news outlet in declaring Kerry the victor of the primary in Georgia, where the ability of non-Democratic voters to cast ballots seemed to play havoc with polling expectations. At 7:01 p.m., moments after the polls closed in Georgia, Fox News projected Kerry the winner. MSNBC and CNN waited until after 10 do to the same.
Yet, prompted initially by an Associated Press alert, and confirmed by their own reporting, first CNN and then MSNBC announced shortly after 8 p.m. -- and well before the polls had closed in California -- that Edwards had decided to pull out of the presidential race.
But it took Fox News valuable minutes before it shared that important piece of news with viewers -- clearly the single most important development of the evening, as it removed Kerry's sole credible challenger.
The average viewer who stayed with Fox News would have found out soon enough. As a matter of pride, however, that delay must have rankled Fox's political reporters. If it didn't, it should have. Fox News also cut away relatively quickly from Kerry's droning victory speech last night in favor of former Democratic strategist Susan Estrich's dishy comments about Kerry's strengths and weaknesses. CNN and MSNBC allowed viewers to hear Kerry in his own words.
Interest in politics is not uniformly high across the television spectrum, of course. In Baltimore, CBS-owned WJZ-TV chose to delay airing Sunday's Democratic presidential debate, which included Kerry and Edwards, until 12:07 a.m. Monday.
"We aired the program," said WJZ spokeswoman Liz Chuday. "It was a public service. We chose to air it after our late news." She noted that many CBS affiliates decided not to broadcast the debate Sunday morning when it was first available.
But that meant that Baltimore viewers who are not night owls had to stay up late to see the last debate before the primary in which they could cast votes. WJZ, it turns out, was one of the largest stations in the country serving a Super Tuesday primary state that did not carry the debate during the day on Sunday. Instead, the CBS channel kept a commitment to broadcast an infomercial late Sunday morning. Some public service.
So, to sum up: On behalf of the nation's media, I pass along their heartfelt thanks for confirming what they already thought they knew. After all, even if a surprise makes news, it can make news professionals look foolish.