Blue Wave? Red Wave? Election-Night TV Was More Like a Whirlpool

Very early on election night, the CNN commentator Van Jones predicted, “You may get seasick tonight.”

It was a rare accurate prediction on the evening, both medically and nautically. The night began with a wave of Trump red crashing across the coasts of Florida, hit by a crosscurrent from the West that buoyed the Joseph R. Biden Jr. campaign, forming a whirlpool of chaos and uncertainty. The president jumped on deck at the end of the night to rock the boat, and in the end, everyone could have used a Dramamine.

The thing was, the TV network anchor desks already had the forecast. We had heard for months about how the pandemic would upset patterns of vote counting, how a “red mirage” might create the illusion that President Trump was carrying states early with same-day votes, that the president would undermine the democratic process, that election night might stretch out to lengths usually seen in the Arctic Circle. Sure, the polls didn’t call this exact outcome — but 2016 had told us that the polls could be wrong.

But while it’s one thing to know that election night could be pandemonium, it’s another thing to experience it. In an election when context — not just the numbers but also what the numbers meant — was more important than ever, the networks often struggled to tell their audiences what they knew, what they didn’t know and what they knew they didn’t know.

For instance, there was the question of how you visually represent a “lead” in states where, thanks to Covid, there was an unprecedented amount of early voting, counted at different times in different states.

CNN sprinkled reminders of this in its coverage. But it also displayed maps with states colored in Democratic blue and Republican red to indicate even slight leads, so that at one point it weirdly showed South Carolina as blue and Virginia as red, even though each state had already been called for the opposite party by other outlets.

Sometimes, responsibility lost out to excitement. At one point, Wolf Blitzer cited “a bit of a surprise” when, with 8 percent of the vote in, Mr. Biden led Kentucky, a state he was not going to win in an election night scripted by the drunkest screenwriters. John King, pushing his magic wall to new limits of its capacity, kept calling the night’s number-crunching “fun,” speaking for a constituency of exactly one.

Channel hoppers could get the sense that different networks were reporting from different countries, and not for the usual ideological reasons. Fox News, which worked this year from a different set of exit-poll data than most competing networks, was calling states earlier, sometimes by hours.

Its most crucial decision was its call, during prime time, of Arizona for Mr. Biden, which reshook the night’s arc. (Mr. Trump won the state in 2016.) The anchor Chris Wallace compared it to a service break in tennis, and it apparently led to some broken gaskets in the Trump campaign, which Fox’s Katie Pavlich reported was “livid” at the call from the president’s (once?) favorite network.

Fox had been stuck between the data and its conservative base before. In 2012, the then-anchor Megyn Kelly shot down the former George W. Bush aide Karl Rove when he groused on air about Fox’s call of Ohio for Barack Obama.

The network stuck by its decision desk again on Tuesday, but the way it played out showed how much had changed over eight years in the network’s need to mollify its base and the politicians lighting up its phones. Over and over, it grilled analysts from its decision desk (an independent unit set up to call races without pressure). When Chris Stirewalt, Fox’s politics editor, mentioned that the network had not called Ohio out of caution, the anchor Bret Baier shot back, “You weren’t careful, cautious and earnest with Arizona.” (Baier later said that he had been joking. Ha ha?)

As midnight came and went, it became nerd o’clock, each network’s analysts working the touchscreens to compute how long it would be until any of us got a good night’s sleep again.

But as it became clear that no decisive call was imminent, there remained one heavily foreshadowed bit of drama: What would Donald Trump say, and how would the networks cover it?

Mr. Trump, long a fan of flexible accounting, had telegraphed that he would discredit any means of voting and counting that didn’t add to his bottom line. And while a president’s words in a contentious election are news, they are also weapons; news outlets knew well in advance that their organizations could be used to spread the impression that counting legally cast votes for somebody else would — in Mr. Trump’s Orwellian phrasing — “disenfranchise” his voters.

The president spoke at the White House, its walls smothered in flags and flat-screen TVs, an angry sequel to his 2016 surprise-victory speech at a Manhattan hotel.

But where the tone of the 2016 coverage was stunned regrouping, this time the outlets had four years of training in what to expect, rebutting the president in captions as he spoke and after. (“CBS News Is Not Projecting a Winner in the Presidential Race”; on CNN, “Trump Says He’ll Go to Supreme Court; Unclear Why.”)

The night wound down with calls for patience, as an election covered by a night of confused but sober reporting prepared to enter the dawn of punditry and spin. (By morning, the Fox elections team had handed things off to “Fox and Friends,” whose Brian Kilmeade warned that Mr. Biden might “grab back” the election by having the remaining votes counted.)

So concluded — or didn’t — the latest episode in a presidential serial that has managed to be continually shocking, yet not at all surprising.