Red State, Blue State

by Ryan Smith '03

May 17, 2005

"Texas, Republican"

"New York, Democrat"

"Dammit, why isn't Minnesota coloring in on the national poll map?"

It was 9 p.m., election night 2004, in Control Room 47, the hub of all activity at CBS News, and the last gate between the reporters and specialists at CBS News and its millions of viewers.

The pressure? Think aircraft control tower. Think hostage situation. Moments and places like these operate in a state of controlled chaos.

Beneath the hundreds of televisions showing the face of Dan Rather was a room full of junkies. Certifiably so. Live network news coverage of real-time election results with hundreds of experts and thousands of feasible programming options provides a high that cannot be equaled by the most addictive of drugs or alluring of women. It's all about getting that fix.

But to this novice, any moment of ecstasy could quickly be intersected with a strong bout of nausea.

CBS News President Andrew Heyward and the network's senior producers and directors stalked their familiar turf like lions circling a pen. They had a show to put on-straight through to 6:30 the next morning. I could never tell who would swipe or bite next if something went wrong.

"Louisiana, insufficient data."

"Kansas, Republican."

The voices in my 20-way network headset were CBS News Polling Director Kathleen Frankovic and Senior Election Night Graphics Producer Dick Jefferson, making the latest calls for the presidential election. In the studio leading a panel of exit poll specialists, Frankovic was ultimately responsible for all winner calls made by CBS News. Jefferson relayed this information to the on-air talent and was responsible for the information in any visual element used that night. Bar graphs, winner boards, race maps, pie graphs and the like were, and all were under his domain.

But before anything could make it out over the airwaves, it needed to be checked for style and content. Mistakes could be made, and that is where I came in.

Story pitches, exit poll information, graphics updates, coverage requests, and breaking news all travels as up a pyramid from one of hundreds of CBS News employees or sources, to a desk, to a producer, to senior producers or separate control rooms, and ultimately to Room 47.

That's where I stood, headset on, with a bundle of monitors and laptops at the station in front of me. When those in 47 wanted something changed, I did it. With access to the network's graphics building, editorial, exit poll and race results computers, I alter something on a moment's notice.

Never before-not even in my days as a Washington intern-had I witnessed this level of attention paid to the details, language and protocol. I'll never be known as the best of editors, as any of my Wabash professors can attest. But at CBS, part of my job is to ensure that producers say best what they mean. Perhaps you noticed when exit poll questions on gay marriage were broadcast, the network used the wording "Definition of Marriage: Man & Woman Only." It turns out that not everyone in support of these amendments finds themselves against gay marriage; it is just that they are for the protection of traditional marriage.

Red states and blue states. That is all that we heard this election cycle. Indiana red. California blue. But this year, CBS News was able to broadcast real-time 3D election results on a county-by-county basis. Viewers were able to see what many political scientists have known all along-it's not so much about red state and blue state as it is urban versus rural. When we shaded in counties for Bush and Kerry, it looked as if the Republican had won over 75 percent of America. But pop those results into 3D mode, and we saw huge spikes for the Democrat in large urban areas-skyscraping leads that trumped the minimal margins of victory in so many other, smaller, counties.

To help frame these results, we set up a CBS News Data Center, where we researched as many 20 demographic categories-gas prices, income, soldiers, race-and broke them down on a county-by-county basis. Much of my job had been to help obtain this detailed information. We were, for instance, able to get the Pentagon to release the home zip codes of all soldiers deployed overseas, and once the numbers had been crunched by an outside company, we were, on election night, able to compare these results with voting trends and exit poll results.

Flashback to 2001. Sitting in Professor David Hadley's class on political data analysis in Baxter Hall, where I often thought there would be no way in hell that I would ever use scatter plots, exit poll results, and the Microcase Software Package ever again. I couldn't imagine that I would be spending much of 2004 working with such equations or training senior producers from CBS, Infinity Radio, BET, and MTV, on how to find out the Jewish vote in Florida, the Security Mom Vote in Pennsylvania or the student vote in Ohio.

But I wasn't in Indiana anymore. The producers at CBS News trusted me, at age 24, to be mature beyond my years-to live up to what I had written down on the paper when applying. I looked at the faces of the people around me and realized why a Wabash man could thrive here. Drive, dedication, curiosity, and the nerve to look out for yourself are what it takes to survive at a place like this.

Along with the ability to deal with the occasional bout of nausea in the midst of controlled chaos and information overload.

The voices cut in again on my headset.

"Florida, red."

"Pennsylvania, blue."

"Michigan, insufficient information."

"Ohio, insufficient information."

Ryan Smith attended Columbia University School of Journalism and began his career at CBS as a page at the Late Show with David Letterman. Contact Ryan at: rns2102@yahoo.com

 


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