Election 2012: Media’s winner and losers

Springsteen, gays, stations shined; Trump, Rove, pundits bumbled

One striking fact about campaign 2012 was how many memes were created, with images and phrases seared into memory: Empty chairs, binders full of women, self-deportation, Big Bird, “You didn’t build that.” You just can’t build stuff like that. Yet the stakes were so high, the money spent so great, the reputations so laid on the line, that this election won’t be remembered only for fleeting moments. Beyond those names on the ballot were individuals and institutions who created legacies, both positive and negative, that will last a long time.

Statisticians: Nate Silver and his FiveThirtyEight blog prevailed in the face of personal attacks as he gave ever-more favorable odds to President Obama as the election neared. A host of other number-crunchers also came close to getting it right. On Election Night, the stars included NBC’s Chuck Todd and CNN’s John King and the like, armed with technical wizardry that allowed them to drill down into the electoral process. Left in the dust was Gallup, proof that there has to be one outlier poll around to prove your point.

Pundits: Dick Morris, Rush Limbaugh and the Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan were ridiculed after their declarations of certainty of a Mitt Romney victory, but the larger problem this election season was an overdose of punditry, left and right. Too much comment about too little information only added to the public exhaustion by Election Day — as satisfying as it might have been for Democrats to watch those noted Republicans wipe all that egg off their faces.

User-generated content: In 2008, YouTube was the Great New Campaign Thing. So it wasn’t new, but the story of 2012 can’t be written without mention of the Romney “47%” video, shot by an anonymous attendee at a fund-raiser and handed over to Mother Jones’ David Corn, who brought it before the public. Mix in a viral dose of social media, and presto! a 2012 election gift that kept on giving.

Anyone-can-do-it content: This was the election where social media became a news source. And while Twitter users often trumped pundits, particularly at the conventions and during the debates, they also contributed to a fair share of misinformation. On election night, NBC News’ Brian Williams complained because a rogue Tweet claimed the network had called the Massachusetts Senate race for Elizabeth Warren — 10 to 20 minutes before it felt comfortable to do so. Another example: Vanity Fair’s fake Romney high school pictures were posted around Facebook as fact. As a real-time source for news, Twitter and its social friends have injected a valuable and viable burst of energy into coverage — but they’ve also muddied the waters of truth.

Fox News: With Obama re-elected, the American people have made their choice between two governing philosophies, leaving conservatives on the outside looking in. But Fox News scored big rating gains after Obama was first elected, and with a lot of dejected Republicans looking for a destination that makes them feel good, it’s hard to see how FNC loses.

Fox News: That said, election night produced the captivating scene of Karl Rove challenging the network’s call of Ohio for Obama that gave the election to the President — a moment that even the Fox anchors called “awkward.”

Bruce Springsteen: His final day of campaigning for President Obama provided a needed dose of inspiration to a contest that had little. And he could speak his mind and still earn adulation across party lines, moving New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to tears of joy upon meeting him. That’s why the Boss was one of this year’s most valuable celebrity surrogates. (In contrast, Ted Nugent, for instance, didn’t make anyone cry happy tears.)

Donald Trump: Least valuable celebrity surrogate. Still, he got attention, so maybe losing is winning.

LGBT: Gay and lesbian candidates scored big victories, same-sex marriage ballot questions prevailed, and support for gay nuptials didn’t hurt Obama’s re-election chances. It was truly a game-changing Election Night. Basking in the glow were industry figures who had shown strong support for the LGBT movement, and who had worked on shows credited with helping to change public opinion, ranging from “Will & Grace” to “Modern Family.”

‘Obama 2016’: Dinesh D’Souza’s unexpected box office hit created a dark narrative about another term and claimed crossover success, but despite much hand-wringing in the media over what it all meant, the film’s message failed to translate into electoral capital. Comparisons between the success/disappointments of “Obama 2016” and Michael Moore’s 2004 George W. Bush-bashing “Fahrenheit 9/11” were particularly apt: Dubya won re-election, too, meaning both were hit films that failed to generate the hoped-for election turnaround.

Traditional media: Throughout the long campaign season, there was a simple answer to where the bulk of the campaign spending was going: to TV stations — some of which ran out of time to sell in the waning days of the race. On election night, broadcast and cable networks steered clear of repeating anything close to the reverse-yourself calls of Florida 2000 (even if Rove wasn’t so sure). At parties and larger-scale gatherings, crowds of people gathered around, some watching Jumbotrons to get results on major TV outlets, while nobody gathered in groups to read social-media postings. And on election day and the following day, consumers were scrambling to buy print newspapers to commemorate the outcome.

Billionaires: Just because traditional media was soaking up money doesn’t mean the dollars were well spent. This was the election where billionaires bankrolled campaigns, using their personal fortunes to keep candidacies alive (see Sheldon Adelson and Newt Gingrich) and, more often than not, to seek the ouster of the current occupant of the White House and a handful of incumbent senators. Yet the fortunes spent on mostly mean-spirited 30-second spots, saturating swing states to the point of tune-out, ultimately could not compete with the simple math of turnout.

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