Red State, Blue State
by Ryan Smith '03
May 17, 2005
"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
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."
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
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.
"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: firstname.lastname@example.org