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Tension, Then Some Tears, as TV News Narrates a Moment for History

The tension mounted for days — and then broke, all at once.

CNN went first, calling the presidential election at 11:24 a.m. Eastern. It was followed in quick succession by NBC, CBS, ABC and The Associated Press. Fox News confirmed the outcome at 11:40 a.m., underscoring what its anchor Chris Wallace later called “the power of what we are seeing right now.”

“Here we have on Fox the headline, the chyron at the bottom of the screen, ‘Joe Biden Elected 46th President of the United States,’” Mr. Wallace told his viewers. “On Fox.”

The projection that Joseph R. Biden Jr. had beaten President Trump came after days of slow-burning suspense on the cable news networks and broadcast channels. As millions of anxious viewers watched, the anchors and pundits filled hours of airtime by tracking the vote counts in battleground states. All the while, President Trump fumed and filed legal challenges.

Some on-air personalities began to lose patience with the slow pace. On ABC on Friday night, Nate Silver, the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight, was asked if he thought the race was over, and he replied, simply, “At this point, yeah.”

The anchor, George Stephanopoulos, and ABC’s supersized panel burst into laughter, with one panelist exclaiming, “Why are we still here then?”

Some viewers may have begun wondering the same, despite pre-election pledges by news outlets that they would be extra careful in tabulating results. But resolution came shortly before lunchtime on Saturday, courtesy of Wolf Blitzer on CNN.

“After four long tense days, we’ve reached a historic moment in this election,” Mr. Blitzer announced. “CNN projects Joseph R. Biden is elected the 46th president of the United States, winning the White House and denying President Trump a second term.”

It was a projection in Pennsylvania that tipped the networks’ models to a surefire Biden victory, as a batch of a few thousand ballots from Philadelphia trickled in, heavily skewed in Mr. Biden’s favor. “It is a cathartic moment for millions and millions of Americans,” said the CNN correspondent Abby Phillip.

Catharsis of a different sort came for the dozens of television producers, correspondents and anchors who had been overseeing a virtually 24-hour broadcast since Tuesday night, with some political analysts pulling overnight shifts in the event of a decisive development.

Rachel Maddow, MSNBC’s highest-rated anchor, had been the co-anchor of the network’s broadcasts all week until she had to go into isolation in what she called her “Covid quarantine cove” on Friday after a close contact tested positive for the virus.

On Saturday, Ms. Maddow appeared onscreen via Skype, explaining to viewers that she was cleaning her bedroom when she heard about Mr. Trump’s loss. (She said she was cleaning out the three-hole punch that she had used to make her research binder for election night and “Dustbusting up the little holes that fell out.”)

“I’m not sure this is the way I imagined I would learn that Donald Trump was a one-term president,” Ms. Maddow said. “But I’ll take it!”

Until Saturday, Fox News had appeared closest to calling the race for Mr. Biden because of its early call for the Democrat in Arizona, an election night projection that prompted criticism from Mr. Trump, and some rival data journalists, for possibly jumping the gun.

Still, Mr. Wallace seemed unimpressed with the president’s baseless talk of a fraudulent election and his legal challenges. “I think it’s going to become increasingly untenable,” he said, noting that Mr. Trump would need to find evidence of “industrial-strength election fraud and we have seen none of that so far.” He noted that Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, had begun to talk of a Biden presidency and predicted that his Republican colleagues in the House and Senate would follow Mr. Graham’s lead.

Donna Brazile, a Fox News contributor who was formerly the interim chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, wiped away tears as she reflected on the significance of Senator Kamala Harris becoming the first woman of color to be elected vice president.

“Been a long time coming, to be the last to get voting rights, to be those who waited and waited for our turn; it’s been a long time coming,” she said, after noting that she had been thinking about her grandmother, who did not have the right to vote. “This is not about asking anyone to leave the room. Just scoot over and let women also share in the leadership of this country.”

On CNN, the anchor Anderson Cooper asked the pundit Van Jones for his reaction. Mr. Jones, tearing up behind his eyeglasses, took a moment before saying, “Well, it’s easier to be a parent this morning. It’s easier to be a dad. It’s easier to tell your kids that character matters.”

The nail-biting week had exhausted anchors and audiences alike. On Friday, Jake Tapper of CNN acknowledged “frustration” among viewers, but evoked memories of the 2000 election, when networks had to reverse projections in Florida. “No one wants to go through that again,” he said, urging patience. “Everyone in the media wants to get it right.”

Shortly after Saturday’s projection, the major networks showed scenes of revelers celebrating Mr. Biden’s victory in American cities, as well as groups of Trump supporters in places like Harrisburg, Pa., who were waving Trump flags and carrying signs that said, “Stop the Steal,” a reference to the president’s unfounded claims that the election was fraudulent.

Mr. Trump, at that moment, was absent from the airwaves. He was off playing golf at a course in Virginia that bears his name.

Edmund Lee and Katie Robertson contributed reporting.

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Networks Pledge Caution for an Election Night Like No Other

Batches of ballots that will be counted at different times, depending on the swing state. Twitter gadflies and foreign agents intent on sowing confusion. A president who has telegraphed for months that he may not accept results he deems unfavorable.

Television executives overseeing this year’s election night broadcasts are facing big challenges. And the world will be watching.

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

In interviews, the men and women in charge of network news coverage — the platform that tens of millions of Americans will turn to on Tuesday to make sense of a confusing vote count and learn the future of their country — made similar pledges.

Patience. Caution. And constant reassurance to viewers about the integrity of the results. “We have to be incredibly transparent all through the night with what we know and what we don’t know,” said George Stephanopoulos, who will anchor the proceedings for ABC News.

To accommodate the idiosyncrasies of this pandemic-era campaign, networks are planning tweaks to the way some election nights looked in the past.

Real-time results will be displayed in the context of the total expected vote, including the absentee and mail-in ballots that will account for a high proportion of it. The usual metric, “precincts reporting,” is tied to in-person votes on Election Day, which producers expect to be potentially misleading.

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The “decision desks,” the teams of data experts at news organizations who project results, say they are not competing over who calls a race first. “We’re preparing the audience that this might not be over in one night,” said Susan Zirinsky, the president of CBS News.

And combating misinformation — be it from online mischief-makers or falsehoods from the commander in chief — is a priority, particularly in educating Americans that any delays in declaring a victor stem from care, not chicanery.

“Just because a count may take longer does not mean that something is necessarily wrong,” said Sam Feist, CNN’s Washington bureau chief. “It may not even mean that it’s a close race. We have to constantly remind the viewer that patience will be needed and this may take some time in critical states, and that doesn’t mean anything is untoward.”

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Credit…Fox

That TV networks bear this burden is partly a symptom of the country’s broken information culture, in which partisan news sources and specious social media rumors can overwhelm careful journalism.

There is also open concern among Democrats that President Trump may seize on early returns and declare himself the victor, hoping that voters’ perceptions overwhelm reality.

“I don’t think we can censor the candidates,” Mr. Stephanopoulos said. “But we have to be vigilant about putting whatever comments are made in context, with everything we know about where the race stands, where the law stands, where the votes are.”

“I wouldn’t think he would call in, knowing that the squad is on that is on,” Mr. Wallace said. He added, “Whatever he were to say wouldn’t sway anything when it comes to what we’re counting.”

That was a reference to Fox News’s decision desk, which has a track record of independence and accuracy. Arnon Mishkin, the consultant who leads the operation, is known for holding his ground during an on-air confrontation in 2012 when the Republican strategist Karl Rove questioned his projection that Barack Obama would be re-elected. Mr. Mishkin, like vote counters at rival networks, will be sequestered from the anchor team on election night, an effort that news organizations say shields the decision desk from competitive pressures.

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Credit…Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

In 2018, Fox News was 50 minutes ahead of any other network in projecting that the Democrats would take control of the House of Representatives. (“I know a lot of listeners out there, their heads are exploding,” the anchor Chris Wallace told viewers.)

Each television network makes its own state-by-state projections. But the projections rely on raw voting data from a handful of shared sources.

One group of networks — ABC, CBS, CNN and NBC — collaborate on an exit-polling operation, administered by Edison Research. The Associated Press, which has an expansive vote-tracking effort, conducts its own count. Fox News, starting in 2018, relies on a proprietary model that draws from The A.P.

Besides the “magic wall” maps and flag-strewn graphics, the networks will trot out a few gizmos to keep viewers tuned in over what could be a long night — or week, or month. CBS News, for instance, is broadcasting from a recently built set overlooking Times Square, in the studio that housed MTV’s “Total Request Live.”

A poll by Gallup and the Knight Foundation found that more than half of Americans thought it could take a week or longer to determine the results (although Mr. Trump declared on Twitter on Friday, “The Election should END on November 3rd”). Three-quarters of those surveyed said they expected some news outlets to “rush to announce a winner.”

Mr. Oppenheim, of NBC News, said he was keenly aware of his responsibilities. “It’s possible we will have a clear outcome on election night at a reasonable hour, and I don’t want the audience to be suspicious of that,” he said. “It’s possible we won’t have an outcome for several days, or several weeks.”

In 2000, when networks twice erroneously declared a winner in Florida, Mr. Oppenheim was working as a production assistant at MSNBC. “Those of us who have grown up in the last 20 years of television journalism understand that election nights can take any number of surprising directions,” he said. “Our job is to be prepared for all of them.”

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