Free-to-air New Zealand television coverage of the US election night came down a choice between watching President-elect Donald Trump’s acceptance speech on TV3 or competitive cooking show Masterchef on TVNZ 1. These three people watched the former.
I spent a lot of yesterday searching for a person in the televised election coverage who I recognised. Not as in like a celebrity, or a broadcaster, but someone who didn’t seem like they were from that part in Mars Attacks where the aliens come down and try to disguise themselves as human beings. Be it the red-faced men in red trucker hats cheering and piling on top each other in joy, or the news presenters calmly hearing the words President Donald Trump roll off their own tongues without crying like a baby in a cartoon, these people were not humans that I had seen before.
That was until I saw a little boy named Baron Trump, slowly swaying, green-faced, behind the President elect. He did a yawn that somehow evolved gracefully into what looked like a small burp. He looked shattered, despondent, barely summoning enough energy to blow his fringe out of his face. He was also the only person on television (perhaps because I was watching FOX) that was emoting anything close to how I felt. Granted he probably wasn’t fully comprehending what was happening in that exact moment but, to be honest, none of the rest of us were either.
Yesterday had that surreal quality of watching history happening in front of you. A shocking event with unknowable implications, unfolding slowly, then with irresistible pace. I watched it on Twitter, as jokes slowly turned to despair. I watched it walking the streets around my house, exchanging furtive glances and sad smiles of recognition.
Mostly, I watched it on Fox News, at first for a hopelessly naive assumption that schadenfreude would be rolling through the afternoon, and later to see whether Karl Rove’s head would pop like an over-ripe pimple from an overload of sheer pleasure.
The screen began with wide shots of two pundit-laden benches, then grew ever more crowded. By the climactic moments the anchor was reduced to a tiny box occupying less than a tenth of the screen’s acreage, hemmed in on all sides by an expanding army of graphs, figures, results and exploding alerts. Atop it all, a scene from Trump’s victory celebrations, a sea of disturbingly young white men in ‘Make America Great Again’ caps which had a ‘frat party celebrating end of the world’-vibe. I saw the visual cacophony referred to on Twitter as ‘Fox News brutalism’ from a design perspective, though the term expanded in usefulness to apply to all aspects of the coverage as the night wore on.
It was a lot to take in.
If Fox provided the maximum possible intensity, TVNZ swang hardest the other way. While Newshub recognised the magnitude of what was happening and stayed with the story for most of the night, first extending Story, then giving way to a 90-minute election special by Tom McCrae and Sam Hayes. TVNZ 1 looked history in the eye and turned on the oven. While Donald Trump was making that surprisingly magnanimous acceptance speech, Masterchef played on, blissfully ignorant of the future of civilisation roiling in the background. It was another example of the state broadcaster’s intense indifference to its role, and TV3 – weakened and in the midst of a nightmare week – gamely battling on to deliver the closest thing we got to public service television. And thus more evidence – on a night when we truly didn’t require it – of what a weird and ass-backwards era we’re living through.
Buckle up. It’s time to shoehorn our major TV networks’ editorial decisions into a criminally forced US election analogy.
TVNZ is Donald Trump. Newshub is Hillary Clinton.
You may be thinking “That’s the worst take I’ve ever seen”, or “Put this writer in the toilet!”. That’s fair. But before you do, please look at the evidence. In switching to Masterchef while the world was imploding last night – and in many similar decisions over the years – TVNZ was:
1. Appealing foremost to the worst instincts of aging white people.
2. Making a cold, economic calculation that would anger so-called political elites.
3. Ignoring that disapproval, knowing its decision would excite a good proportion of its overwhelmingly idiotic base.
That strategy could double as an election guide for the Trump campaign. Like that horrific enterprise, TVNZ has no time for performative morality. It knows you don’t accrue currency for doing the decent thing. You can’t cash in positive tweets for ad revenue. And its strategy seems to have paid off with a ratings win.
Just like it did for Donald J Trump.
Meanwhile, Newshub persisted gamely with its election coverage because it was important. It was the right thing to do. It wanted to adhere to conventional journalistic standards. It believed there was an ounce of decency left in the charred remnants of humanity’s collective soul. And it ended up as it perennially does: a loser.
Just like Hillary Clinton.