< The History of Election Night


Friday, November 09, 2012

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Election night TV coverage used all sorts of high and low tech gimmickry to communicate results to viewers. The top of the Empire State Building was lit with climbing red and blue bars, as states were called for each candidate. A map of the United States laid onto the ice rink at Rockefeller Center was spray painted blue and red as the night progressed. And there were the slick luminous electoral maps activated by the touch of an anchor's hands, like a giant all-knowing iPhone. (No holograms, though.) And, as “The Daily Show” noticed, there was also a preoccupation with social media.


JOHN OLIVER:  Jon, I am loaded for bear tonight with real-time election center media analysis capabilities:  live monitoring results and opinions, as they happen through a light-speed stream of instantaneous real-time micro-blogging.


JON STEWART:  So, so basically - if I can just –

JOHN OLIVER:  That’s what we’re doing here.

JON STEWART:  For the, the layman out there – if I get, you’re checking Twitter.


JOHN OLIVER:  Whoa, that is – that is just the appetizer, Jon. And let me demonstrate. This is an actual real-time tweet.


JOHN OLIVER:  It says, “I personally voted for Mitt Romney.” So if that single tweet is any indication, Jon, get used to saying “President Romney” ‘cause he’s going to win tonight in a landslide.


BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Ira Chinoy, associate dean of the University of Maryland’s College of Journalism, has studied election nights past and present, and he says the use of technology has a long tradition.

IRA CHINOY:  Around the time of the Civil War, the telegraph was starting to be used to bring returns in, and it was important for newspapers to reach the crowds that were gathered on the  streets. And, as the crowds got larger, they couldn’t simply announce the returns or post them on paper and reach enough people, so they started using something called a magic lantern –


- which would be a little bit like a, an overhead projector today.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Like a Batman image against the clouds –

IRA CHINOY:  Yes, I mean, right. It was basically a block of calcium that shone really bright and they’d run it through some lenses and put some transparencies in front of it and shine it on the side of the building. A little later in the 19th century, one of the innovations was to put a very large searchlight on the top of newspaper buildings. Newspapers would publish, ahead of time, codes that would say, you know, if the light shines west so-and-so is winning, if the light shines east, so-and-so is winning.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  So tell me about that paper in Minnesota during the McKinley campaign and election.

IRA CHINOY:  Right, so this - all of this is sort of broadcasting before broadcasting. It’s ways of spreading news to people far and wide before we had radio or TV. So a newspaper in St. Paul borrowed the whistle, the ship’s whistle from a great steamship and had it trucked to St. Paul and put it on the top of a building. They published the codes ahead of time, and they were a pro-McKinley paper, so if McKinley won it was gonna be some sharp toots and if Bryan won, it was gonna be a low wailing moan from -


- from the whistle.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  [LAUGHS] We take broadcast coverage of elections for granted now but at one time this stuff seemed too ephemeral to actually have validity, right?

IRA CHINOY:  Right. In fact, in 1916 Lee De Forest who was an inventor of some early radio equipment went on the air on election night to launch a – you know, effectively a wireless newspaper. The headlines called it an air paper and a scheme to use the atmosphere as a medium for sending news. And he later boasted that it was gonna mark a significant époque in the  distribution of news. But even as commercial radio appeared in 1920, you know, there were people who didn't really think that, that radio was a proper medium for news. It was too ephemeral; you couldn't hold it in your hands, you couldn't reread it, you couldn't go back and study it.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Jumping ahead to 1952, the first presidential-election-predicting-computer, the UNIVAC.

IRA CHINOY:  There were two computers, in fact, used that night, and the UNIVAC was used by CBS, and a much smaller computer called the Monrobot –


- was used by NBC. It was, in a lot of ways, an era much like our own. There were brand new competing technologies. The computer industry was brand new. It sort of, I think, felt like the dot.com boom. Everyone was jumping in and trying to invent a computer. And, you know, we tend to think that a technology like computers came along and, of course, it would just be obvious to everybody that that's what should be used. But there was not a common agreement that this was a great thing, and NBC backed away in 1954 and said that, you know, it was gonna use human beings on election night in 1954. The best experts were gonna be better than any statistical device.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  [LAUGHS] Which is maybe why we saw no holograms on CNN –

IRA CHINOY:  That’s right.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  - the other night. Now, with more humanity.

IRA CHINOY:  Right. Well, I give them a little credit though on, on CNN, with the hologram in 2008. A lot of people ribbed them and –

BROOKE GLADSTONE:   Because it was pointless and provided no insight whatsoever into what was actually going on.

IRA CHINOY:  Right, so if you were to read the newspaper reviews of election night 1952, that's precisely what people would say about Lisa computers on that night. The day could come when the hologram becomes a kind of an interesting tool to use in bringing news to people. We just don't know. I'm more inclined to be less dismissive of it than I was when I, when I first saw it.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:   Did people make fun of the UNIVAC the way they made fun of those holograms?

IRA CHINOY:  Yeah, absolutely. Several of the leading sort of  entertainers and comedians of the day certainly poked some fun at - you know, Arthur Godfrey poked some fun at the UNIVAC and then later came back and apologized.


And Er - Ernie Kovacs, you know, was a broadcasting comedian of the day, and he created a little thing he called the Koviac. I think in one segment he fed it some beer and, you know –


So yeah, people had a lot of fun with that.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Ira, thank you very much.

IRA CHINOY:  You’re more than welcome.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Ira Chinoy is the associate dean of journalism at the University of Maryland’s College of Journalism.


ANNOUNCER:  Yes, it’s Spencer Tracy, as you’ve never seen him before, and Katherine Hepburn, as you’ve always wanted to see her. They’ll have you rocking and rolling with laughter, as they match wits with Miss Emmy, the machine that can replace everybody, except a woman like Katie. Wow! You ain’t seen nothin’ ‘til you’ve seen what goes on and on and on with the  “Desk Set.”


BOB GARFIELD:  That’s it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Alex Goldman, PJ Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman, Chris Neary and Doug Anderson, with more help from Lita Martinez and Ariel Stulberg. And it was edited - by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Ken Feldman.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Katya Rogers is our senior producer. Ellen Horne is WNYC’s senior director of National Programs. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and find transcripts and read our blog at onthemedia.org. You can find us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter, and I urge you to do that. We have a great Twitter feed. And you can e-mail us at onthemedia@wnyc.org. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. I’m Brooke Gladstone.

BOB GARFIELD:  And I’m Bob Garfield.



Ira Chinoy

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