Monday, November 02, 2020

Election Night: How Will Networks Deal With A Trump Declaration Of Victory?

It is a virtual certainty that at some point on Tuesday night, Donald Trump will declare himself the winner of the 2020 election. That announcement will come long before all of the votes are counted, of course. His lie will be echoed and amplified by his sycophants at Fox, causing a ripple effect across other far-right media.

How will the mainstream news (network and cable television, media online) handle an extremely pre-mature declaration? That's a real worry, especially when I look back at how reporters have consistently failed to give their viewers and readers an accurate report of what Trump has been and what he has done. They have normalized (or severely downplayed) his aberrant (and abhorrent) behaviour. His vulgar and pugnacious comments, as well as his steady torrent of lies, have been presented in the pages of the New York Times and Washington Post - the two most important newspapers in the country - as merely the latest chapter in the give-and-take of American politics.

Will those papers and the cable news networks forcefully call out his irresponsible tweets and label them as lies? (And it will be a lie, as opposed to "inaccurate information", because Trump will know all of the votes have not been counted.) With militia groups having made statements about terrorizing voters and killing Democrats, not taking a firm and unwavering stance could be a life-and-death matter.

Note: FiveThirtyEight ran 40,000 simulations of the election. Trump won about 10% of them.

On Saturday, CNN's "Reliable Sources" newsletter quoted a bunch of media people about their election night coverage. Brian Stelter and Oliver Darcy, who write the newsletter, said their biggest fear is impatience. 
Americans are accustomed to knowing the outcome of elections within hours. For some, speed engenders trust in the result. Not-knowing stirs skepticism and distrust. Yet there's a lot we won't know on Election Night this year, due to the ways different states count mail-in ballots.
CNN DC bureau chief Sam Feist said:
This is the most unusual election in our lifetime because so many people have voted by mail. . . . We have to be patient with the election authorities so they can count the votes, and we have to be patient with our decision desk teams because the votes are going to be counted more slowly, so . . . we're going to be projecting states later than we've probably ever projected them.
A recent Gallup/Knight survey noted that 54% of US adults expect it will take longer than three days to know the winner of the election. 25% expect the winner will be known in one to three days and 21% think the winner of the election will be known on the evening of Election Day. (21% still sounds like a lot of people to me, though Trump's approval percentage is far higher.)

Michael Grynbaum of the Times spoke to several network executives about their coverage:

NBC News president Noah Oppenheim: Frankly, the well-being of the country depends on us being cautious, disciplined and unassailably correct. We are committed to getting this right.

ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos: We have to be incredibly transparent all through the night with what we know and what we don't know.

CBS News president Susan Zirinsky: "We're preparing the audience that this might not be over in one night."

Fox News president Jay Wallace: "Whatever [Trump] were to say wouldn't sway anything when it comes to what we're counting."

Speaking of Fox, Sunday's newsletter focused on Trump's favourite network, noting that its constant fawning coverage of Trump, while portraying Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as corrupt, un-American radical, gives viewers a distorted picture of the race. The network has been questioning the veracity of numerous polls. Various Fox chyrons reinforce the message: "BIG ENTHUSIASM FOR TRUMP DESPITE CONFLICTING POLLS", "MASSIVE ENTHUSIASM FOR TRUMP", and "TRUMP CLOSING THE GAP IN KEY BATTLEGROUND STATES" The network's chief political correspondent even spoke like Trump, saying that in the battleground states, "it is narrowing and narrowing fast."

Even if Fox's news people report the facts on Tuesday night, the hosts of the more-opinionated shows on Wednesday (and beyond) will not. And they have a history of trashing the reporting of their own network's news department when the facts don't line up with the propaganda.

The Associated Press "is pulling back the curtain this year" and explaining "how its experts make decisions or why, in tight contests, they are holding back. If necessary, top news executives will speak publicly in interviews about the process."

CNN reports that pre-election voting "has now surpassed two-thirds of all ballots cast during the 2016 presidential election". Nearly 92 million Americans have voted, as of last Friday. That total is roughly 67% of the approximately 136.6 million ballots cast in 2016.

Eric Boehlert, who writes the always-excellent Press Run, asked last week if Trump would be able to bully the media into calling a winner on Tuesday night:
For now, news outlets are saying all the right things about being patient on Election Night . . . But the Beltway press does not have a strong track record standing up to Trump's bullying during the last four years, especially media institutions, which have refused to wage any kind of collective battle with the White House as it dismantles decades of norms. Will the networks have the fortitude if they face the full onslaught from Trump, Fox News, the Republican Party, all of AM talk radio and hysterical right-wing voices online, waging war on the media for not declaring Trump the winner? . . .

TV news needs to break away from its decades-long tradition of marketing Election Night as one big game show that culminates with a late-night winner being announced . . . All that breathless chatter giving the illusion of real-time vote tallies, and bells ringing at the top of the hour to signify polls closing for a host of key states, needs to be reined in. . . .

Fact: State laws dictate that Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — potentially among the three most decisive states in the battle for the White House — cannot even start processing or counting mail-in ballots until Election Day.

The problem is the networks are working with an Election Night formula that has to factor in mail-in ballots, which this year will represent nearly [100] million voters. . . . It's also impossible to conduct exit polling since [100] million voters aren't "exiting" a poll location on Election Day . . .

Remember what happened Election Night two years ago? Relying on their old methods, TV outlets downplayed the more than 20 million early votes that had been cast and, based on in-person voting results, quickly announced there was no Blue Wave brewing, and that Democrats had failed to pull off a big night. But then as the early votes were counted over days and weeks it became obvious Democrats had pulled off a Blue Wave — they flipped 40 House seats.

Imagine what the results might look like this year with 80 million early votes.
(my emphasis)
There is also the possibility that the police in many towns and cities will act in support of Trump.

* * *

On January 30, 2018, during Trump's State of the Union address, Steve Bannon told interviewer Michael Lewis: "The Democrats don't matter. The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit."

That tactic has been a resounding success. In the past, an illegal action or offensive quote might have dominated a week's worth of news. Trump himself makes several of those every single day. Reporters barely have time to note one instance before being hit with two more. 

And that's why Trump can express praise for his armed supporters attempting to force a Biden campaign bus off a Texas highway and it will likely not even make a dent in the day's reporting.

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