BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Election night coverage was the same ballet it always is -
[DANCE OF THE SUGAR PLUM FAIRY/UP & UNDER] - kind of like The Nutcracker Suite, with more nuts and less action. Actual election results trickle in slowly, and even when winners begin to emerge there’s a long wait between East and West Coast results, not to mention Hawaii and Alaska, which means that the pundits have air to fill, lots of it. How do they do it?
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Chad, you can tell us what it looks like but, more importantly, how does the weather affect voter turnout?
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: All the numbers and the colors and the states right and ready -
MALE CORRESPONDENT: We're getting ready. We're getting ready for the top of the hour, but it’s still very, very early.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: We're going to see the results of that a little later. I'll keep crunching these numbers for you, Wolf.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: I know Tom Foreman said it’s like a conference championship, but I'm thinking this is still like the Super Bowl.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: You know, the good thing is this is my home state, so I can always stay with family here.
[LAUGHTER] But I'm going to run low on socks.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what’s a viewer to do? Jack Shafer, who writes the Press Box column for Slate, advocates election night abstinence. This year he chose to watch a DVR’d episode of The Walking Dead, AMC’s new zombie show, instead.
JACK SHAFER: You know, many of the zombies reminded me of a lot of the Democrats [BROOKE LAUGHS] who are being shot in the head by voters. It was exciting.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So why do you think people watch these things, and especially this time around FOX, which had an enormous audience comparatively?
JACK SHAFER: Well, an enormous audience was six or million?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Something like that.
JACK SHAFER: Okay, and how big’s the country, 300 million? I would say that the voters vote with their eyes by watching zombie shows or other programming. CBS didn't have any primetime coverage at all.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You offer a far more efficient alternative for watching [LAUGHS] the political paint dry. What’s your way to follow election returns?
JACK SHAFER: If you tune in before 7 o'clock Eastern Time, when the first statewide polls are closing in the East, you’re completely wasting your time.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] Yes, at 7 o'clock they will project a few winners that their exit polls are pointing toward, but better for you to wait until 8. By that point a majority of statewide races are in a position to be predicted. And it makes no difference which network you watch. Watch whatever network whose faces are the least offensive to you, because they're all drawing on the same projection data from the Edison people that all the networks and the AP subscribe to. When I watch coverage at home, I play a kind of cable roulette just to keep any one of the anchors from bothering me too much. And then I think you repeat the top of the hour drill at 9 o'clock and at 10 o'clock. And at 10 o'clock, unless there’s a race that you’re absolutely crazy about, go to bed. Nobody wants to stay up until midnight to find out who wins in Alaska and Hawaii, if they're living on the East Coast. Have a nice cup of hot milk and go to sleep and get up early in the morning and look at the returns then.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, you weren't the only one who ignored the media. That seemed to be the preferred option of many politicians who avoided debates, they refused interviews. In one case an Alaskan journalist was handcuffed for [LAUGHS] the crime of interrogating a politician.
JACK SHAFER: Well, I take this as a very good sign.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] I think that the press now has politicians on the run. They're very skittish. Politico, when they named all the candidates who were running away from the press, trying to minimize their losses, not saying anything embarrassing. And that includes the President of the United States who’s not been exactly a very frequent participant in press conferences. So I think it’s a good sign. It indicates that the press is tough on candidates, is tough on officials.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, I guess it is a good sign, but also now politicians have a choice, since they can so easily communicate directly with their constituents through Facebook and mailing lists and stuff.
JACK SHAFER: That’s what I call the myth of the unfiltered media. Anything that Sarah Palin sends out on her Twitter feed or Facebook page, or anytime she appears on a friendly forum such as FOX, where they pay her, I guess, a million dollars a year, she can get the first bouts out without any interpretation, but anything that she Tweets is immediately analyzed, chewed over and spat out by the press. So I really don't think that this unfiltered media that allows politicians to speak directly to their faithful is really that powerful.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It just loses its power when it crosses over to the unfaithful.
JACK SHAFER: Exactly, but in order to be a successful politician you have to attract the unfaithful. The deciding force in this election were the Independents. Last time we're told that Independents went for the Democrats and Obama, this time the Independents went for Republicans. So that unfiltered message, yes, if you reach your congregants, that’s fine, but your congregation’s not big enough to ensure victory at the polls.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, you wrote your column before the election, and at that point it was impossible to say whether the just-don't-talk-to-reporters strategy would actually work. In hindsight, I guess about half of the politicians that you mentioned in the article did end up winning?
JACK SHAFER: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what should we make of this, if anything?
JACK SHAFER: That the other half lost.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] Primarily, politicians, when you can get them to sit down for an interview, they'll either avoid the question or they'll lie to you. If a politician refuses to talk to the press, the press, I think, is then liberated to go and focus their energies elsewhere, check the candidate’s back story, his financial affairs, his campaign finances, his voting record, and going out and doing real digging and reporting where the material doesn't necessarily lie to your face. That’s a good thing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jack, is there anything that would get you in front of the television watching returns on election night?
JACK SHAFER: I don't think so. The tops of the hours, when polls are closing, there’s not a whole lot of news. You don't tune in television necessarily for the fantastic analysis. You tune in to be there when the thing happens, whether it’s a great soccer goal that’s scored or a great speech that is given that’s been built up, or finding out who won a closely contested election, like the election in 2000. The magnetic force of that election probably would have pulled me to the tube and kept me there. And it did.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jack, thank you so much.
JACK SHAFER: You betcha.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jack Shafer is the editor-at-large for Slate, and he writes The Press Box column.