The Media Today

Surprise! Election night was a confusing mess. 

November 4, 2020

In yesterday’s newsletter, I wrote that the news media would have to be self-confident on Election Day, striking a balance, basic to all good journalism, between unabashedly laying out the truth and communicating what we don’t yet know with humility and transparency. On this morning after a night that—by any measure—was challenging for the self-confidence of the press, and with the election result still unknown, that balance remains crucial. As of 8am Eastern, we know that, of the states that we had the closest eyes on, Joe Biden has carried New Hampshire, Minnesota, and Arizona (though not everyone has called the Grand Canyon State yet); that Donald Trump has carried Florida, Ohio, and Texas; and that Wisconsin, Michigan, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Nevada, and North Carolina remain too close to call. We also know that different brackets of votes—mail-in votes, in-person day-of votes, and so on—are coming in at different times and speeds in different places, and have the potential to significantly change the picture in several of the close states. We don’t know, of course, what the outcome will be. And that’s okay.

Despite that very fundamental, ongoing uncertainty, the picture this morning still looks radically different from that of 7pm yesterday, when—after hours, days, even weeks of news organizations’ anxiously marking time (yes, The Daily, we get that J-Mart likes barbecue)—results started to come in. On CNN, Wolf Blitzer started reporting them with the pace and subtlety of a runaway freight train, barking potentially meaningful and undeniably meaningless early numbers in the same breathless tone. (At one point, Blitzer expressed some surprise that Biden was leading Trump in Kentucky, where 8 percent of total expected votes had been counted; CNN called the state for Trump less than an hour later.) Despite the early count being very incomplete, CNN began coloring in states on its magic wall, and put up blaring graphics declaring “KEY RACE ALERTS” (sponsored—you can’t make this up—by Calm, a sleep and meditation app) in races that were neither key nor anywhere close to being called. John King, who tried in vain to check Blitzer’s excitement, kept saying that he was having “fun.” Twitter volubly disagreed

Related: How careful local reporting undermined Trump’s claims of voter fraud

While CNN stuck with its news anchors in the early hours, other networks brought on pundits—“Patience is something I’m not very good at, but I’m going to have to have it,” Rahm Emanuel, the former Democratic mayor of Chicago, said on ABC—and outside guests. Kellyanne Conway cropped up on both ABC and NBC. On Fox, where news anchors were leading coverage, Tucker Carlson stopped by to parrot Trumpian talking points. Flicking between networks, one heard both that Florida was being Florida again and that something “remarkable” was happening in the state. It quickly became clear that Trump would carry it. NBC’s Andrea Mitchell suggested that Trump had successfully labeled Biden a “socialist” in Miami-Dade County. It was 7:45pm. Around the same time, the Associated Press called Virginia for Biden—but for several more hours, CNN expressed uncertainty around the result there, noting Trump’s lead among votes cast. The network eventually echoed the AP’s Biden call, shortly before midnight.

As promised ahead of time, networks situated results in the context of total expected votes cast, as opposed to in-person precincts reported—a bid to account for the flood of early votes occasioned by the pandemic. Compared to the candidates’ percentage shares, however, this crucial context was not universally prominent on-screen—on CNN, for instance, it looked more like a small print disclaimer than radical transparency—and even networks that did better had so much information on-screen at once that the viewer risked being overwhelmed. Also as promised, anchors sought to explain key developments and terminology to viewers, though this sometimes felt forced, even patronizing—like an awkward professor taking a break from a jargon-laden lecture to address a student who wasn’t paying attention.

Eventually—an occasional, incomprehensible fusillade of data aside—the pace started to slow and networks across the board dug in for the long haul. (PBS, which was more measured than its competitors throughout, merits a special mention here.) A little after 9pm, the polling expert Nate Silver summed up the state of play: “We’re in the zone where we know a little bit about a lot of states, when it would be better to know a lot about a couple of states (other than Florida),” he tweeted. He elaborated over at FiveThirtyEight’s election liveblog. Florida aside, Silver wrote, “the big shift to early and mail voting makes it hard to calibrate models and expectations and hard to know what to think.” 

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The next really big talking point didn’t come until the 11pm hour, when Fox News, whose number crunchers are more widely respected than the network’s opinion hosts, became the first outlet to make a controversial call: Arizona would go to Biden. Trump was reportedly furious about the call, and his surrogates—including, on Fox’s air, his former press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a Fox contributor—publicly questioned it. A rumor circulated on social media that Fox had retracted the call, which it had not. Around 12:30am, Arnon Mishkin, the head of the network’s decision desk, appeared on air to defend his math. “I’m sorry,” he told Fox host Bret Baier. “The president is not going to be able to take over and win enough votes.” By 3am, the AP had echoed Fox’s call. (At time of writing, CNN and the Times still hadn’t called the state.)

Print outlets, including the AP, have generally been more sedate about the results than their TV counterparts. Early headlines atop the homepages of the New York Times and the Washington Post centered high expected turnout and the simple fact that vote counting was ongoing. At the Times, though, there was also the election night needle—or needles, to be precise—and where there are needles, Twitter outrage is rarely far away. Rather than show a single dial projecting a national winner, as it had done in 2016—a tough ask this year, due to the surge in mail-in voting—the Times instead offered needles for three key states that were expected to count their votes relatively quickly: Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina. The limited scope, however, didn’t stop the needles from being occasionally confusing (at one point the Florida needle characterized Trump’s 94 percent chance of winning the state as both “very” and “pretty” likely) or from swinging wildly. Around midnight, the Georgia needle, which had favored Trump, lurched in Biden’s direction, suddenly offering him a 62 percent chance in the state. (This morning, the needle lists Biden’s chance of winning Georgia as 64 percent.)

In the early hours, we heard from Biden, who expressed confidence in his position but urged patience. Then we heard from Trump, who launched into an entirely predictable—yet no less disgraceful for that fact—tirade in which he falsely claimed victory and accused Democrats of attempting to steal the election from him by continuing to count ballots in key states (though he seemed fine with the count continuing in Arizona, where he’s losing). As CNN’s Brian Stelter predicted ahead of time, every network carried Trump live. MSNBC and NBC cut him off; the other networks did not, preferring to fact-check—and condemn—him after he finished talking. On CNN, the former Republican senator Rick Santorum declared himself “very distressed” by Trump’s lies; on Fox, Chris Wallace accused Trump of “throwing a match” into an “extremely flammable situation”; on ABC, Terry Moran said we had witnessed a “theater of authoritarianism.” If that was the case, the networks, for all their subsequent pearl-clutching, had just provided the stage and the lights. Democracy may not need darkness to die after all.

Where are we now? The networks are still rolling, albeit with new hosts on duty, for the most part. (Blitzer, with any luck, is excitedly counting sheep somewhere.) Occasional important updates aside, they’re now palpably struggling to fill airtime. At one point, CNN’s Chris Cuomo literally ran out of things to say and tossed to the Democratic pundit Andrew Yang, who rued a “bad night for math”; later, Cuomo cut in to remind his viewers that a colleague was discussing mail ballots, with an i, not ballots cast by males. My Columbia colleague Emily Bell summed it up best in a tweet in the small hours: newsrooms, she wrote, expended a lot of energy planning how they’d handle premature declarations, “whilst the ‘figure out how you are going to explain to your readers wtf is going on at around midnight on Tuesday’ plan was somewhat neglected.”

Election night was so widely covered that it’s hard to generalize about how the media did, even if we narrow our analysis to TV alone. To varying degrees, though, it feels true to say that we’ve felt more heat than light. The present uncertainty was entirely foreseeable, yet it seems, nonetheless, to have caught many media personalities on the back foot. There are ample important stories for us all to be discussing while we wait: voter suppression, including in Florida; lazy assumptions about “monolithic” voter blocs; the policy implications of the result; what dark truths Trump’s better-than-forecast showing can tell us about America. Instead, we’re all chewing over the same unknowns, on loop. The impatience is palpable. Leaders reveal much about their electorates. Trump’s short attention span surely reveals something about ours.

Below, more on the election:

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, Hurricane Eta made landfall as a Category Four storm in Honduras and Nicaragua, destroying homes and killing at least one person, a twelve-year-old girl in Honduras. The AP reports that “the storm was forecast to spend much of the week meandering over Central America,” bringing rain that’s drawn “comparisons to 1998’s Hurricane Mitch, one of the most deadly Atlantic hurricanes in history.” Predictably, the story got lost amid the US election. “I know it’s Election Day,” the climate reporter Eric Holthaus tweeted, but “we are in a climate emergency.” Meanwhile, the US will formally withdraw from the Paris climate agreement today.
  • Police in Zimbabwe detained Hopewell Chin’ono, a journalist, and charged him with contempt of court over a tweet Chin’ono posted criticizing a prominent judge. Earlier this year, Chin’ono was arrested on separate charges of incitement linked to his coverage of alleged government corruption; he was held in pretrial detention for forty-four days, then released on bail in early September. The Committee to Protect Journalists has more.
  • CPJ is also calling on authorities in Mexico to investigate the recent killing of Arturo Alba Medina, a journalist who hosted a daily TV news show in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua. According to La Verdad, a local news site, Alba had recently covered police violence and corruption as well as confrontations between the police and gangs. Alba previously worked for Univision in El Paso, Texas, across the border from Ciudad Juárez.
  • Charles Spencer, the brother of Britain’s late Princess Diana, is demanding an inquiry at the BBC amid allegations that Martin Bashir, a BBC journalist, used fake documents to secure a famous interview with Diana, in 1995. The BBC denies that the documents influenced Diana’s decision to do the interview, but has apologized and pledged to investigate any “substantive new information.” Bashir is currently very sick with covid.
  • And for GEN, Lucia Graves explains how Kimberly Guilfoyle leveraged media buzz around a dog-mauling case that she worked as a prosecutor in San Francisco, in 2001, to launch a career that would carry her to Fox News, then a role as a top Trump surrogate. (As The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer recently reported, Guilfoyle was forced out of Fox after an assistant accused her of harassment. She has denied wrongdoing.)

ICYMI: Getting election night right

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.