Epic. That’s the only way to describe the workday for TV news anchors on Tuesday and Wednesday as Donald Trump pulled off his historic upset win, defying virtually every major forecast that predicted him losing the quest for the White House to Hillary Clinton.
CBS News’ Norah O’Donnell and Fox News’ Martha MacCallum were among the anchors in the trenches fielding a fusillade of data and information and reporting it all live in real-time for millions of viewers.
“I’ve covered presidential campaigns since 2000 and I’ve never seen a race that was this close in so many states,” O’Donnell said. CBS held off for hours calling certain states, long after many other news organizations, out of a sense of editorial caution (and memories of the debacle in 2000 in the Bush-Gore battle). “There was too much at stake to call it for the sake of going home,” she said.
Like O’Donnell, MacCallum was on-air Tuesday for nine-hours plus. Both anchors left their respective studios around 3:30 a.m. Wednesday. O’Donnell was back at the CBS Broadcast Center at 5:30 a.m. to co-anchor Wednesday’s edition of “CBS This Morning.” MacCallum, co-anchor of “America’s Newsroom,” had an early call, too.
“We all thought it was going to be a fairly early night,” MacCallum said, citing the polls that consistently gave the edge to Clinton. But around 10 p.m. ET, when the raw vote totals confirmed razor-tight races in key battleground states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida, the atmosphere changed for MacCallum and those manning Fox News’ Decision Desk. As much as they were under pressure to report new numbers and predictions for states, MacCallum and her team had to hit the brakes to make sense of it all.
“It got very quiet very quickly,” MacCallum said. “Everybody was just staring at their computers. Everybody slowed down a beat and we all said, ‘Something’s turning here.’ ”
At CBS News, O’Donnell shared the duties of guiding the broadcast in and out of breaks with “CBS Evening News” anchor Scott Pelley. In her spare moments off camera, she hurriedly reached out to take the temperature of campaign officials from both camps. The urgency to do real-time reporting and help steer the broadcast that is utterly without a script is a challenge for the most seasoned broadcast reporters.
“I’m not reading off a (Tele)Prompter. I’m in the middle of a full-on reporting sessions and trying to get us on and off the break,” O’Donnell said.
At the start of the night, Clinton campaign officials were confident. “Not cocky, but confident,” O’Donnell said. Trump’s team was even more subdued in her communications with them early in the day.
“Even the Trump campaign hadn’t expected this sort of wave that we started to see later in the night,” O’Donnell said.
MacCallum had the change to conduct a brief telephone interview with Trump earlier in the day, before polls closed, during her regular “America’s Newsroom” anchor slot. That Q&A came up with very little notice, although she had been chasing him for a few days. MacCallum’s focus on whether Trump would accept the results of the election indicating the consensus that Clinton would be giving the victory speech.
“He seemed prepared for it to go either way,” she said. “The numbers were telling them good things but he didn’t sound at all like he thought he was going to win.”
At CBS, the core anchor team of O’Donnell, Pelley, Charlie Rose, Gayle King, John Dickerson and Bob Schieffer prepared for the big night by thinking of the reportage as stringing up a “clothesline of storylines,” O’Donnell said. They needed to be prepared for any outcome by gathering and organizing data points and anecdotal stories that they could pluck off the line to report in real-time.
“That was a great editorial mechanism to set up for how we would animate each of these storylines,” she said. “We kept thinking, ‘What’s the data we have to hang here, what’s our original reporting for this piece.’ ”
The other key ingredient that fueled the CBS News team: sustenance from Shake Shack, provided to the studio by CBS News president David Rhodes.
At Fox, Election Night marked the unveiling of the $30 million refurbishment of Studio F, stocked floor to ceiling with digital displays and giant video walls. The team had a few rehearsals in the space during the weekend, but there were still some kinks to work out in the real-time marathon of Election Night. MacCallum joked that she was nervous to stand too close to anchor Bill Hemmer at his interactive touch screen tracking the state-by-state results. “If you breathe too hard, you might give California to the wrong person,” she joked.
As the night wore on, MacCallum felt the weight of covering a historic political inflection point for the country — a consequence that made her even more cautious about making predictions before the hard facts were in hand.
“You definitely feel the weight of it — you know that everybody is hanging out in front of their TVs waiting to hear who the next president is going to be,” MacCallum said. “I kept thinking, ‘It’s leaning toward Hillary but man, if it’s not this is going to be one of the most incredible political upheaval stories we’ve ever covered.”
O’Donnell also emphasized the sense of responsibility that she feels to accurately and objectively report on a subject that is so polarizing to the country.
“I’m always grateful to have the privilege to watch this whole thing unfold,” she said. “We’ve got a front row seat to history, and this was a historic night.”
(Pictured: Martha MacCallum, Norah O’Donnell)