After months of what some felt was treating Trump as a dangerous side show act, part bringer of Armageddon and part drunk uncle, and brushing off scandals on behalf of Clinton, during election-night coverage it seemed hardly anyone involved had prepared for the possibility that Trump might win.
CNN started the evening with Jim Acosta quoting another one of those nameless “senior Trump advisers” as saying, “It will take a miracle for us to win.”
You could see the wheels coming off the narrative on CNN at about 8:15 p.m. As John King ran down the vote in Florida — which seemed about to deliver an early knockout punch for Hillary Clinton — the vote totals suddenly shifted to Trump. Wolf Blitzer regularly interrupted the analysis to excitedly point out the lead fluttering back and forth, back and forth, as if only he could see it.
As the hour went on and none of the expected battleground states were called, shock settled into studio after studio.
The polls leading to election night had shown a steady advantage to Clinton. But as the actual returns came in, the newsrooms seemed rudderless. Said Brian Williams on MSNBC: “No one has the advantage of information tonight. No one has an inside read, a private poll.”
There may have been a failure of polling. But what was on display across the news media was, in the words of the New York Times, “really a failure of imagination… but whether from cultural alienation — coastal journalists are not Trump’s target demographic — or over-reliance on received political wisdom, they didn’t seem to accept that he honestly might win.”