So much for a divided media. After weeks of exhibiting utter confidence in their favoured presidential candidates, the partisan U.S. media came together Tuesday evening for an extraordinary moment of collective self-doubt as they anxiously watched the tight election results trickle in.
On Fox News and MSNBC, the television avatars of the American right and left, distressed pundits spent the early evening walking back on the certainty they had shown over the past month. And while CNN's John King waved his hands in front of virtual reality maps like a weatherman, desperately looking for prevailing political winds, the real storms began brewing on the extremes of the TV dial.
Some indulged in race-baiting. Bill O'Reilly, the popular Fox News host, suggested Hispanics and blacks would be to blame if Mitt Romney lost the White House.
"The demographics are changing," he told anchor Megyn Kelly, who worked to remain upbeat through the night. Echoing Mr. Romney's notorious crack about "47 per cent" of Americans who would never vote Republican because they depend on government handouts, Mr. O'Reilly said: "It's not a traditional America any more, and there are 50 per cent of the voting public who want stuff. They want things. And who is going to give them things? President [Barack] Obama. He knows it, and he ran on it.
"And whereby 20 years ago, President Obama would be roundly defeated by an establishment candidate like Mitt Romney – the white establishment is now the minority – and the voters, many of them, feel like this economic system is stacked against them and they want stuff. You're going to see a tremendous Hispanic vote for President Obama, overwhelming black vote for President Obama, and women will probably break President Obama's way. People feel that they are entitled to things, and which candidate between the two is going to give them things?"
Mike Huckabee, the one-time Republican presidential candidate and Fox News host, later said bluntly: "I think Republicans have done a pathetic job of reaching out to people of colour."
But if there was no race-baiting over on MSNBC, there was plenty of doubt, with the pundit Ezra Klein warning darkly that the election could have long-lasting significance. He referenced an article by political scientist Larry Bartels in the journal Wilson Quarterly, which reviewed democracies around the world recovering from economic turmoil and noted that, "in every case, the party that happened to be in power when the Depression eased, went on to dominate politics for a decade or more thereafter."
Therefore, said Mr. Klein, if President Obama "wins re-election, some of his signature achievements – the economic stimulus, the auto bailout, Wall Street reform, and Obamacare – all of these will get a boost in the public's mind." If Mr. Romney wins, those "Democratic ideas … will quite likely be discredited, and not just for this year, for a long time to come." Replied the host Rachel Maddow: "That is harrowing."
But even as both sides flirted with despair, they geared up for a new fight over the meaning of the election. Even before most of the polls closed, those on the right were reframing the meaning of the evening's result: on CNN, the Republican strategist Alex Castellanos argued that, even if President Obama were re-elected, he'd certainly lost the grand support he'd had in 2008 and therefore would not have a mandate. James Carville, the long-time Democratic strategist and pit bull, laughed in his face.
Others took to blaming the press. On Fox, Tucker Carlson said the media had severely under-reported the story about the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and instead focused on covering President Obama's show of bipartisanship with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie after Hurricane Sandy.
"The picture was: Here's a President in his president jacket. Here's Christie, and they're arm in arm," noted Fox's Mr. O'Reilly. "It's the picture in America that dominates. Not the bloviating."