Television news is ever in a rush, thanks to technology providing instant reporting at the push of a button. If only that technology were not zooming ahead of the human buttonheads entrusted with channeling it for public good.
So what happened when a medium driven by speed encountered a presidential election gripped by the quicksand of stalemate? An election that grew by five weeks, during which the U.S. waited -- more patiently than some of its press -- to learn the identity of the next president?
It wasn't pretty.
Worse even than doomsday scenarios and sports metaphors. Worse than gratuitous photo ops, hour-by-hour shots of screaming idiots with placards and meaningless person-on-the-street interviews. Worse than reporters interviewing reporters. Worse than dueling demagogues and suffocating blather by pundits. Worse than CNN asking viewers -- and this actually happened -- to vote for their "favorite U.S. Supreme Court justice."
Worse than any of that was television -- mainly the 24-hour cable news networks -- being on high-speed modem for an extended election that demanded backing off from time to time and letting the process, however languid and frustrating, proceed at its own pace.
In a stressful milieu where beating a competitor on a story is measured in seconds, though, ratcheting down equals surrender. And the pressure increases when your signature is speed and a vast Sahara of air time stretches before you.
One way TV fills it is to nervously elicit predictions ("Whaddya think will happen?") from anyone who can be cornered minutes -- sometimes just seconds -- before a scheduled news event is to occur, as if speculation and information were twins.
This quickening of TV pulses began years ago when sound bites began being redefined as full-length stories. These elements converged adventurously, however, in the latter stages of the just-ended campaign, culminating in the now infamous debacle of Nov. 7.
Who can forget the networks and all-news channels dangling the election on the end of a bungee cord that they kept yanking back at the last minute?
By projecting Florida for Vice President Al Gore early that evening, they were fitting him for the Oval Office, based on their electoral math tied to results from other key states. By later stripping Gore of Florida and granting it to Texas Gov. George W. Bush, they were anointing him president. And by still later snatching Florida from Bush and hanging it in limbo, they were setting the stage for the unsettling weeks that followed.
Just as it may never be known which candidate drew the most votes in Florida, no one will ever be able to say how many voters in other states -- either Bush or Gore supporters -- decided against going to the polls based on TV's premature early call of Florida for the vice president.
The slippery fast track hardly ended there, of course.
TV was victimized during this election at times by the very expectations of speed it helped create, as in CNN running a misleading slide last Tuesday afternoon promising the U.S. Supreme Court's seminal ruling "any moment."
So, facing a fierce conundrum, the networks and news channels could be excused somewhat for scrambling chaotically to decode the court decision when it did come down late Tuesday night instead of holding back until calmer analysis was possible.
Yes, the peril was apparent as reporters and anchors rushed to wade through and read cold, on the air, complex legalese that would determine the election's outcome. And yes, high-wire journalism it was. How unsettling to see them thumbing through legal documents like the Yellow Pages and reading sections out of context.
Realistically, though, what were they to do in view of the elevated public expectancy -- instruct viewers to tune in three hours later to hear about the ruling that would determine their next president?
It was this high court vigil, meanwhile, that had cable's news channels acting as fidgety as diapered tots, including CNN asking viewers Tuesday to e-mail in their high court predictions. The Fox News Channel was so impatient that rather than await commentary from its own legal pundits, it asked members of the public emerging from the Supreme Court building during Monday's hearing for their impressions during brief court-watching stints.
To one woman, who was not a lawyer: "Tell me what kinds of questions were asked and where you think these questions were going?" The follow-up to her: "Did it seem the justices were satisfied with the answers they received?" Then the woman's daughter gave her take: "The mood was, like, really serious."
Like, maybe this was a bad idea, and slowing down would've been a good one.