The first results were coming in from Georgia’s special congressional election. And Tucker Carlson of the Fox News Channel had a theory to explain why Jon Ossoff, the Democrat, wasn’t heading toward a huge victory over his Republican opponent, Karen Handel: Ossoff was (gasp) a liberal elitist.
“Ossoff ought to be running away with it, but he’s not,” Carlson said. He sneered at Ossoff’s prodigious fundraising, saying that “all that money has come from angry liberals who live out of state.” As for whether Ossoff was capable of relating to voters in Georgia’s Sixth District, Carlson smirked, “He’s super-fit and way smarter than you are.”
Tuesday’s special election to choose a successor to Tom Price, the Republican congressman chosen by President Trump as secretary of health and human services, was a chance for cable news to relive the glory days of 2016 and the ratings bonanza that was the presidential campaign. CNN, Fox, and MSNBC all had their political teams in place, ready to spring into action in case anything dramatic happened.
But their heart didn’t quite seem to be in it, and in any case the outcome proved anticlimactic. CNN called the Georgia race at 10 p.m. with Handel comfortably in the lead. In a less-watched race in South Carolina to succeed Mick Mulvaney, now the director of the Office of Management and Budget, the Republican also won. In the end, Democrats ran relatively close races in districts that are heavily Republican. But though Trump’s unpopularity may be making life difficult for his fellow Republicans, they have still managed to prevail in this year’s special elections.
Live coverage on the cable nets offered little in the way of drama. From 7 to 8 p.m., CNN’s Erin Burnett focused mainly on other stories, such as special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia; new information about Trump’s first national security adviser, Mike Flynn; and Trump’s blaming of former president Barack Obama for the death of American college student Otto Warmbier at the hands of the North Korean government.
With returns starting to trickle in toward the end of the hour, Burnett and company switched to election analysis. But then it was time for Carlson and the Fox News Channel. It was a long, long hour. Say what you will about Bill O’Reilly, whom Carlson replaced — O’Reilly knew how to do television. Carlson, who failed in several venues before landing his current position, managed the neat trick of being outrageous and mind-numbingly tedious simultaneously.
Other than brief updates in the opening and closing minutes of Carlson’s program, the Georgia election took a back seat. A bombing attack in Brussels prompted Carlson’s first guest, the veteran right-wing gadfly Mark Steyn, to harrumph that the presence of a large Muslim population in Brussels should be seen as “preposterous” as the emergence of a theoretical Flemish community in Riyadh. That was as elevated as it got, as Steyn was soon blathering inanities such as this: “We’ll be talking about transgender bathrooms when the mullahs nuke us.” Carlson found this hilarious.
It didn’t get any better, and it’s not really worth reciting except to note that, toward the end of the hour, Carlson treated us to a deleted tweet by Lena Dunham that was vaguely anti-fatherhood, a controversy over all-white Skittles, and some guffawing about Chelsea Clinton’s pique over a fat joke that Trump political adviser Steve Bannon directed at White House press secretary Sean Spicer.
Finally, mercifully, I was able to switch to Rachel Maddow on MSNBC for an hour that proved to be almost as tedious as Carlson’s but a whole lot smarter. Steve Kornacki was the man with the map, explaining the breakdown between Ossoff’s and Handel’s votes. Earlier in the evening Ossoff had been slightly ahead. But Kornacki noted that Ossoff had not won in pre-election voting by as large a margin as he needed to, and Handel was swamping him in Election Day voting.
As is her wont, Maddow then launched into a long, convoluted story — this one about organized crime and Wall Street. It was not clear where she was going, and I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that a segment had fallen through and she was trying to kill 20 minutes. Gradually, though, her rambling began to come into focus, as we learned that there were new questions about President Trump’s dealings with Felix Sater, a former business partner with ties to both organized crime and Russia. Trump biographer Timothy O’Brien, now with Bloomberg View, was interviewed by Maddow about a story he’s written on the matter that should appear here once it’s been posted. Where will it lead? Who knows?
At 10 I turned back to CNN just in time to see the network’s political director, David Chalian, project Handel as the winner in Georgia. Handel appeared to be on her way to a five-point victory in Newt Gingrich’s old district, a district that Price won by more than 20 points last November. Surely the Democrats could take some comfort in that — no? No, according to Chalian.
“They lost. I don’t think we should gloss over that,” he said, predicting that it would embolden House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell to push ahead with their health-care and tax proposals. Which is probably a good indication of how the media in general are going to spin what happened on Tuesday.
As for what I learned of value during my three hours with CNN, Fox, and MSNBC — well, I could have checked Twitter a couple of times during the evening and learned just as much in a lot less time. I could have watched the Red Sox. I could have cracked open a book. But then I wouldn’t have been able to write this column, would I?