December 12, 2010

Bush v. Gore Reflection: Rick Pildes

Here is a guest post in my Bush v. Gore reflections series from NYU's Rick Pildes.

    That Night Ten Years Ago

    Rick Pildes

    I can recall vividly where I was when the Court handed down its decision that night: in front of 20+ million people, live on television for the leading news network, NBC News, charged with the role of immediately interpreting and explaining the decision to the country -- but without a copy of the actual decision to rely on. In an image that remains iconic of that night for me, two of NBC's top reporters stood on the steps of the Court, lit up by television lights and framed by the deep-black of a December's night sky, as they took turns reading out loud paragraphs from the Court's decision. As I tried to absorb the words and quickly decipher the overall meaning of the Court's decision, Tom Brokaw came to me, the camera went live, and I was asked whether this meant still more legal maneuvers remained ahead or that the election was over.

    To give you a fuller picture, I was sitting by myself with one cameraman in a small room called "the nook." In the 34 or so days leading up to that night, I had insisted on having the actual texts of legal decisions in front of me before commenting on them, and NBC had always been happy to accommodate that. But in the frenzy of that night, I hadn't received a fax of the decision; I had to rely on the paragraphs our reporters read aloud live. NBC understandably had Tom Brokaw presiding alone down the hall at command central. Isolated in my "nook," I had no idea what anyone else was saying about the decision -- but there would have been no time to pay attention to that in any event, given the pressure to be the first to break the news.

    I had gotten to this point through a surprising path. Although I was an expert on election law, I had no media experience I can recall before the 2000 election dispute began. I would have had little opportunity for it, for I was teaching at the University of Michigan, in the small town of Ann Arbor, and happened to be in New York as a visiting professor at NYU School of Law in the fall of 2000. In the first few days after the election, I was asked to appear on a number of different stations, including local NBC in New York. After those initial days, I received a call from the national news desk of NBC and was elevated overnight to the highest-stakes level of network news; I became the legal analyst of the election dispute for NBC's "Breaking News" team. That was the team, led by Tom Brokaw, that would cut into existing programming and go on the air live to cover any breaking development in the election saga. I was struck by the almost complete absence of any training I received for any of this; I was given a few quick tips and then just put on the air live. Teaching large law-school classes turned out to develop skills that translated well to live television, or so I assume NBC concluded. I will always remember the kind words of Tom Brokaw coming into my earpiece to calm me just before my first major appearance.

    I want to reflect more on that general experience here, since I have never put down any thoughts about it before. When I started, I confess to not having had any sense of the differences between the three major network anchors of the time (at a time when anchors still mattered) -- Peter Jennings, Dan Rather, and Tom -- nor of the differences between the networks in the news area. I didn't know of NBC's longstanding position as the leading news network, nor of Tom's history or reputation. I would have felt lucky to be cast into this role in any context, but the more I learned and discovered, the more fortunate I felt. Although I am skeptical and critical by nature, I discovered that Tom Brokaw had almost a photographic memory for news and American politics, that he was a wonderfully generous person of great integrity and decency, and that he had a seriousness of purpose I could easily respect (he ended up playing a role in my decision to come to NYC, as he explained his decision to switch his career from LA to NYC many years earlier). So too with the production people on the Breaking News team: I can recall many occasions on which I spent two or three hours with them after we were off the air, just because they wanted to understand more deeply everything going on in the courts. NBC was willing to respect my request to appear as an independent, academic expert, rather than to be put into any position in which I would be pushed into assuming any kind of partisan role. And unlike most television commentary, which feels fleeting I have since discovered, this was a moment at which it felt the virtually the entire country was engaged in the same sustained conversation and debate over more than a month. To play a role in helping people understand those issues, working with the people I did, was deeply gratifying.

    Fortunately, I managed to get the Court's decision right in that high-stakes moment ten years ago tonight. A few months later, NBC's Breaking News Team was nominated for an Emmy for our coverage of the night of the Court's decision (when I was called, I asked whether that meant I would get one of those little gold statutes if we won, and I recall just about falling out of my chair when the answer was yes). But at the awards dinner, I was told the word was that all the judges could not stomach looking at video of anything to do with the disputed election just a few months later. Indeed, not a single news Emmy was awarded for anything having to do with coverage of what was obviously one of the major news events of the year, at the very least, the 2000 election dispute.

Posted by Rick Hasen at December 12, 2010 10:20 AM