TCS Daily

Tomorrow's News, Yesterday

By Radley Balko - July 19, 2002 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON, November 1, 2002 - The midterm elections are over. The Republicans retained the House and retook the Senate. And Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo is not -- I repeat -- not dead.

Americans don't go to the polls for another four days, but ever quickening coverage and commentary on politics and policy on cable news, the Internet and in the "blogosphere," - in combination with some unexplained Halloween mysticism - ended this year's elections before they ever began.

Washington Post media critic Howie Kurtz says the seeds to last night's dramatic turn of events were planted years ago.

"There used to be something called a 'news cycle,'" Kurtz says. "It meant that a few days might pass between the time an event happened, and the time editorialists might reflect upon the event and offer an opinion. 24-news and the Internet shaved the news cycle down to a 'news stream,' where coverage of news was just seconds behind the news itself. Last night, we saw the next step in the process - coverage actually caught and surpassed reality. It's really a monumental day for journalism."

Most trace last night's weird revolution to Slate's Mickey Kaus, who was covering a campaign rally in Georgia for Saxby Chambliss, challenger to incumbent Senator Max Cleland.

"I was using this cool new toy put out by Blogger and Nokia," Kaus says. "It combines voice recognition, blogging software, and a cell phone. Basically I just dictate into a receiver, and my words post on KausFiles in real time. Looks like a chat room. I guess people are saying that that's the moment campaign coverage actually caught up to reality."

Kaus says that a nasty autumn storm then rolled in.

"It was this foreboding cloud, swelled and bulging. I remember thinking to myself that it looked a little like Jack Germond. Anyway, we were in a tent, so I didn't worry much about it. But after the rain picked up, I saw a white bolt of energy strike a telephone poll just outside the tent. Next thing I know, my body went numb and everything slowed down around me. I guess I was hit by lightening. I came to, and started dictating again."

Kaus didn't realize it at the time, but he was actually dictating events at the rally before they happened. Looking back at his posts, one can see where his pace quickened. Kaus quickly moved his pre-coverage from mere seconds ahead of the present, to minutes, eventually to hours.

Soon, other sites in the "blogosphere" took notice. Before long, coverage moved hours ahead of reality, and reality had no choice but to follow coverage's lead.

"We were on Air Force One, headed to a rally for Jim Thune," said bewildered White House Chief of Staff Andy Card. "Next thing I know, we're making a B-line for Illinois because somebody named "Pejman Pundit" reported that we've been at a Peter Fitzgerald rally for the last three hours. What the hell is a 'Pejman?' I'm really confused right now."

Coverage quickened its pace, as old media sites picked up on the trend. The Nation was the first to move coverage a full day ahead of reality, when its web site reported a November 2 speech by President Bush at a rally for Bill Simon, challenger to California Governor Gray Davis. The Nation reported that Bush's speech called for the total and complete privatization of Social Security, "but just for white people."

A furious White House press team, now aware of journalism's Marty McFly, placed a phone call to the Wall Street Journal, which printed the text of a hastily-written Bush speech later that afternoon, which retracted his earlier comments, and announced the President's new position favoring reparations for slavery.

"It's weird," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. Usually, we tell the press what we're going to, and hope they cover it. Now, we pitch the things that we want to do, and hope they'll let us do them.

Within hours, coverage had moved two and three days ahead of real time, and the coverage leap wasn't limited to politics. The Chicago Tribune ran a box score of the Bears' 72-7 victory over the Green Bay Packers. The Tribune sportswriter who wrote the recap was fired hours later after revealing he'd placed a $12,000 wager on the game with an online casino based in Cancun. And Blogger Jim Treacher announced that Hollywood couple Jennifer Anniston and Brad Pitt had broken up, and that a heartbroken Anniston was living in his basement.

By 11pm Halloween night, media old and new had moved a full five days ahead of reality, and began to call the November 5 elections. The New York Times, in a sensible show of objectivity, went first, and called the South Carolina Senate seat for Republican Lindsey Graham on its web site. Opinion Journal later called Iowa's seat for Rep. Greg Ganske, a stunning defeat for incumbent Democrat Tom Harkin.

"I had planned on voting for Harkin," said stunned Iowa farmer Gerald Crawford. "But then I read in the paper that some reporter interviewed me outside the voting booth next week, and I told him I voted for Ganske. Damn. Who am I to argue with history?" Crawford went on to say that he's "seriously freaked out" and will vote for Ganske "mostly out of fear."

Fearing loss of the Senate, the DNC preemptively blast-faxed a press release congratulating incumbent Mary Landrieu for defeating her challenger, GOP Rep. John Cooksey. But the fax was seconds too late -- the Weekly Standard web site had just posted an article calling the race for Cooksey.

"*&%$'n interns," said a noticeably beleaguered Terry McAuliffe. "They were faxing photocopies of their butts to college friends and tied up the machines. Ten seconds earlier and we'd still have the Senate."

In the end, the Republicans retained the House by three seats, and regained the Senate with a seat to spare. Alertly, InstaPundit proprietor Glenn Reynolds quickly announced that a consensus of GOP senators had rallied behind Tennessee's Bill Frist as new majority leader, thus leaving Mississippi's Trent Lott on the outs.

"Never been much of a Lott fan," Reynolds said, "Frist is a good guy. Gives Tennessee some clout, too." Reynolds was later offered, but turned down, a position as Frist's Chief of Staff.

In the night's most bizarre move, the Los Angeles Times announced on its website that Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo had been killed in a freak skiing accident. Tancredo and his family watched in horror as a Denver television station reported his demise.

Still, D.C. bureau chief Ron Brownstein defended his paper's reporting.

"Look, we're three hours behind the East Coast papers. If the Washington Post is two hours in the future, we're still an hour in the past. We were getting scooped left and right. How were we supposed to compete with that?"

An unamused Tancredo refused to play along. "Die? I'm supposed to die? Forget it. They said I skied into a tree? Come on. That's not even original. I'm not about to miss the Broncos game next week so the L.A. Times can save face."

The Times printed a correction, but keeping with newspapers' tradition of placing corrections in less conspicuous spots than the original errors, the Times ran the correction in an edition that ran two weeks before the offending article.

The night's significance wasn't lost on historians, either.

Noted academic Francis Fukuyama, author of the much-publicized book The End of History is already working on a sequel, a tome intended to put October 31, 2002's events into historical perspective. Its working title? The End of the Present, naturally.

Radley Balko is a writer living in Virginia. He publishes The Agitator web log.

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