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Will cable news determine the fate of American democracy?

  • "The 2020 presidential election could very well be messy, complex, and slow, defined by an unprecedented number of mail-in ballots, legal challenges, and possibly recounts reminiscent of the fiasco in Florida in 2000," says Alex Shephard. "And cable news, which millions of people will be watching throughout election night, is pathologically incapable of dealing with messy, complex, and slow stories. The networks are designed for easy answers that feed simple narratives, and they have shown a tendency to be short-circuited by Donald Trump’s chicanery. He will undoubtedly spend Tuesday evening desperately spinning a victory, and how cable networks respond may profoundly impact the result of the election." Shephard points to Election Night two years ago, when cable news pundits declared that the Democrats had fallen short, even though the "Blue Wave" wouldn't emerge for a number of days. "To their credit, news organizations down the stretch have informed their readers and viewers that they should not necessarily expect results the night of the election. Whether they can show restraint when it’s called for, however, is another question entirely," says Shepherd. That is particularly true of cable news networks, which typically devote election night to running state-by-state tallies and featuring panels of pundits that have grown so large that they now resemble Viking feasts. There are long periods when very little happens, which is covered up only slightly by their slavish devotion to expensive technology that shows real-time, county-by-county data. Much of that dead air is filled by pundits, who attempt to create a real-time version of the dreaded New York Times needle, divining the political narrative that is appearing in raw form on the magic screens of John King and Steve Kornacki. Even in normal times, this is a useless exercise. These pundits, usually talking heads affiliated with the campaigns, provide no insight, and in any case much of what they say is stale within 20 minutes. Their job is to spin the results, not to inform the public. In an election as weird as 2020’s, with one candidate presumed to crush in-person votes and the other with a gigantic mail-in advantage, these narrative swings are even less important. What actually matters is covering the facts on the ground, calling out frivolous challenges to legitimate ballots, and resisting the temptation to spin."


    • What channel should you watch on election night?: "Here’s a Guide for roughly what percentage of your time you should devote to watching each channel on this most emotional of nights," says William Leitch. "You’re going to want to be flipping around, to get out some of that jittery energy."
    • How the TV anchors are preparing for the next few days of nonstop broadcasting: “I’m going to wake up, get in some exercise, eat a healthy breakfast and then take a minute to read everything, relax, and go over my notes," says Norah O'Donnell. "I’ll be preparing all day long, checking in on what’s going on across the country. I always try and touch base with the campaign managers or top political advisors before we go on the air so I can report what I’m hearing from the top of the campaigns and then we’re off to the races!”
    • Why Fox News may be the best place for watching Election Night results: "If you never would think of tuning into Fox News, this might be a time to do so," says Tom Brueggemann. "Election coverage is the one time I check them out. Why? They usually play it straight. They are known for having an excellent projection desk — that’s the people who declare winners based on available data. And Fox is aggressive about being first, and are almost always right. They have a top-end production, with their normal evening news line-up not front and center. Who knows what incredible ulterior pressure they may be under this year, so no guarantees about the lack of bias. While Fox News president Jay Wallace told the New York Times that he would hesitate to put Trump on the air if he called in during election night, their viewers are strongly pro-Trump. There could be an even greater fear of alienating them from the corporate suites — a decision that could have ramifications if, after he loses, Trump decides to set up a competitor network. There could be real tension there. The reason for checking them out will be how they convey the results. The care in which they emphasize the post-election day counting of mail-in ballots is critical. As Trump is intimating in his recent campaign appearances that voting done day-of — which should lean more in his favor — is somehow, preposterously, more valid that ballots counted within the legally authorized window, it is critical for Fox to do their duty to communicate the truth of the situation. There could be enough tea leaves to suggest a strong Biden showing, but what if Trump declares victory based on incomplete numbers? How Fox reacts could be the most important story of the night."
    • Lester Holt closed out Monday's Nightly News by saying this election “has often felt like a powder keg with a fuse burning down to November 3rd"
    • Is this the end of the Election Night watch party?: Despite this potential for uneasiness, people have always found ways to make Election Night into a social event, but not this year.

    TOPICS: 2020 Presidential Election, CNN, Fox News Channel, MSNBC, Lester Holt, Norah O'Donnell, Cable News