a Thursday, January 7th, 2021

New York Times public editor: The day the Times woke up

It took the New York Times a bit over a year to go from wishy-washy headlines like “Trump Urges Unity Vs. Racism” to “Mob Incited by Trump Storms Capitol.” What changed?

It wasn’t Trump. He came to power claiming a prerogative to bend reality. It will be four years in a few weeks—when Joseph Biden is inaugurated as the forty-sixth president of the United States on January 20—since the first example of his presidential alternative facts: the size of the crowd at his own inauguration.

His insistence that he won an election that was not particularly close is in keeping with his approach to public life ever since he emerged as a lesser New York City real estate developer. What changed most notably yesterday is that the Times and other power centers in American politics have accepted the reality that has been staring them in the face.

The Times’ comprehensive coverage of a grim day in American democracy is to be applauded. But it, and we, must not remember today as when Trump went too far, but as the day when the Times and other arbiters finally woke up to what had been there all along.

a Wednesday, January 6th, 2021

CNN public editor: Where are the law enforcement voices?

CNN is covering a live, ongoing law enforcement crisis on Capitol Hill primarily with political pundits.

Yes, the politics are important, and the network would be remiss to ignore the root causes of today’s crisis. But we could use a more measured and technical approach to this tinderbox.

It would be nice to know why the Capitol Police failed so spectacularly this afternoon. How did the Trump supporters end up in an armed standoff? Why is it taking so long to respond? Where is Mayor Muriel Bowser?

If this happened in any other country, they’d call on one of a myriad of law enforcement experts. The choice to rely on political talking heads is not helpful.

a Friday, November 6th, 2020

Addicted to CNN in the UK

As regular readers may know, I currently write CJR’s daily newsletter from the UK, where I’m from. (I studied and lived in the US in between times; given my 7am Eastern deadline, it’s great to now have the time difference.) While I follow CNN closely, for work purposes, it’s unusual for my friends to do likewise. This week has been an exception; in fact, it feels, from scrolling down Twitter at least, as if every politics nerd in the UK is hooked on the network, as the quadrennial Great British American Election Night Watch-along—wings, “chips,” miniature American flags, Budweiser—has turned into a sleep-deprived, multiday marathon.

Brits have fallen in love with John King, marveling at his stamina and Magic Wall. (Steve who?) Iain Martin, a columnist with The Times of London, threatened to establish a UK John King Fan Club; others demanded that King be flown in to cover elections here. Alastair Campbell, the spin doctor for former prime minister Tony Blair, praised CNN’s pundits as “articulate, clear, well-informed” (compared with the current prime minister, Boris Johnson, at any rate). The network’s coverage here has been interspersed with commercials for the same handful of CNN International shows, playing over and over again: Amanpour; First Move, with Julia Chatterley; Connect the World, with Becky Anderson; and Quest Means Business, with Richard Quest, who is now widely known here as “Maze Man,” since his ad shows him striding, expressively, through a maze. (On reaching the center, he dings a little bell and shouts “WHAT A PROFITABLE DAY!” in a Nigel Thornberry voice.) If Quest et al. are not quite household names in the UK, they are, at least, now names in my household, where my girlfriend and I speak along in time with the ads, mimicking their cadence and gestures. (Her: “What about the prospect of an IPO or is it too soon?” Me: “It all starts here, and that’s why we’re here.”)

While I see CNN’s election coverage through the eyes of a US-focused media critic, my friends do not. “CNN is awesome,” one texted me, a minute after the polls closed on Tuesday. “So much flashing stuff.” Earlier today, I checked in with that friend, and a few others I know to have been watching, to see if they were still enthused. The friend from Tuesday was. “Love the pomp and ceremony and drama,” said another. “So American.” A third: “It’s just very loud, and they seem to be constantly, like… doing stuff.” A fourth excitedly told me that CNN had just displayed the logo of an adult website on the Magic Wall. I assumed this friend hadn’t actually fallen for that very obvious viral hoax, but it turned out that he had. We’re all very tired.

A more serious theme recurred among my (highly unscientific) sample, as well as among British commentators online: that CNN is refreshingly forthright and no-nonsense compared with British broadcasters in general and with the BBC in particular. “John King turns a trickle of data into a bombardment of analysis, which is a pleasant change from the jovial but ultimately pointless interviews with political has-beens and minor celebrities on British election nights,” one friend wrote me; another added, “I didn’t even like John King that much and I found the BBC coverage simplistic compared to the power of CNN.” Others said they appreciated how strongly CNN anchors have called out Trump’s fraud lies.

This analysis might seem surprising to Americans: Britain, after all, has a notoriously partisan, scabrous press. Here, though, our broadcasters tend to be more sedate and old-fashioned, generally hewing more closely than print newspapers to notions of civility and objectivity. CNN, to my mind, hews to those principles, too, but it’s generally brasher about asserting them. To oversimplify, the tone of British newspapers is more like US TV, whereas US newspapers are more like British TV.

Novelty, of course, is also important here. There would have been huge UK interest in the presidential election anyway—as well as a desire to hear about it from an American perspective—but it’s also happened to coincide with a particularly miserable, boring period in British life, straddling the start of a new, national coronavirus lockdown.

Not that everyone here has been impressed by all the flashing things. “I watched CNN election coverage for about ten hours last night and felt, at the time, loads of incredible white knuckle things were going on constantly,” Barney Ronay, a sports writer for The Guardian, tweeted earlier. “This morning it turns out nothing actually happened.” I had a similar reaction, from my strange transatlantic perch. It was not a very profitable day.

Related: How the media’s unfolding-election narrative serves Trump

a Wednesday, November 4th, 2020

New York Times public editor: Retire the election needles

The results of election night 2020 were not as conclusive as many anxious Americans had hoped. But, for me, one long-running debate was settled for good: it’s time to retire the New York Times’ needle—the graphic display that shows the likely winner of an election.

I’ll say right up front that I have been a strong partisan in this particular fight. In 2016, I found that the whipsawing gauges, which were programmed to be extra bouncy, accomplished nothing but to induce high anxiety. (Others disagree, of course, because it’s the internet. I also pronounce “gif” with a soft G. Don’t @ me.)

On Monday, the Times’ polling guru Nate Cohn announced that the needles were returning for 2020, but only sort of: instead of a running gauge predicting the ultimate winner of the presidential election, the Times limited it to just three states: Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina. Why those three states? Because they were releasing the kind of data that the needle’s algorithms require. Cohn wrote that they were restoring the needles because they allowed for a simple presentation of complex electoral analysis, in real time.

When Florida began releasing votes soon after polls closed, all three swung toward Trump. A little after 9pm, Cohn explained on Twitter, in a fairly complicated walk through the models used, that he thought they were being too pessimistic.

Throughout the night, Cohn continued to interpret results in terms not of the election outcome, but of the needle: “Trump’s lead in Georgia down to 2.5 points; needle unmoved on the news.”

This seemed a strange use of his time as, in the run-up to the election, Cohn’s polling blog was an exceptional resource for making sense of the deluge of survey data released each day, and was nuanced and hedged enough in its explanations that it is difficult to criticize even in the wake of results that have again left people questioning the reliability of polling.

The Times did, in fact, turn off this year’s needles at 6am on Wednesday morning. It removed all traces of them from its election results pages.

It should be for good. Instead of educating readers on how to understand its needle, the Times should continue to educate readers on how to understand the election results themselves. They have exceptionally skilled human beings, like Cohn, who can do a much better job than a faux dial.

a Wednesday, November 4th, 2020

How conservative media covered the 2020 election

I thought a majority of conservative media outlets would frame last night’s inconclusive voting results as a Trump victory. Instead, in some cases, they were even-handed.

Fox News called Arizona and Maine for Biden, ahead of CNN and MSNBC. This was a surprising and welcome development in a fractured media landscape characterized by polarized reporting and opinion. The Washington Examiner also provided fodder for this détente of sorts. Senior columnist Timothy Carney called Trump’s claims of voter fraud “unpresidential and bad.”

Others could not resist the tastiest sound bite from Trump’s speech—“frankly, we did win this election.” It allowed several conservative outlets to amplify the president’s dark interpretation of the voting results. Both WND and Big League Politics had prominent homepage stories featuring that unverified declaration. Aggressively pro-Trump writer Conrad Black asserted in his column for American Greatness that Trump “has probably won.”

Neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer agreed with him. Ominously, its editor, Andrew Anglin, wrote: “Trump is ready to take whatever actions are necessary to ensure that our country is not stolen from us. We are going to win. You may be called upon to help the president.”

Meanwhile, the Daily Caller’s White House correspondent Christian Datoc spent the evening inside the White House to report on Trump’s election night party. We learned that guests dined on hamburgers, french fries, and pigs in a blanket. Few wore masks. (We can only dream of what Hunter Thompson might have written in such a target-rich environment.)

There was one area of clear agreement between media outlets on the right and those on the left. Everyone despaired of polling. It was the night’s only clear loser, so far.