How the Media Could Get the Election Story Wrong 1

Picture this Thanksgiving: turkey, football (maybe), tenser-than-usual interactions with relatives. And perhaps a new tradition: finding out who actually won the presidential election.

The coronavirus crisis means that states like Pennsylvania may be counting mail-in ballots for weeks, while President Trump tweets false allegations about fraud. And the last barriers between American democracy and a deep political crisis may be television news and some version of that maddening needle on The New York Times website.

I spoke last week to executives, TV hosts and election analysts across leading American newsrooms, and I was struck by the blithe confidence among some top managers and hosts, who generally said they’ve handled complicated elections before and can do so again. And I was alarmed by the near panic among some of the people paying the closest attention — the analysts and producers trying, and often failing, to get answers from state election officials about how and when they will count the ballots and report results.

“The nerds are freaking out,” said Brandon Finnigan, the founder of Decision Desk HQ, which delivers election results to media outlets. “I don’t think it’s penetrated enough in the average viewer’s mind that there’s not going to be an election night. The usual razzmatazz of a panel sitting around discussing election results — that’s dead,” he said.

The changes the media faces are profound, with technical and political dimensions.

First, there’s already a shift underway from a single-day, in-person election. In the 2018 midterms, only 60 percent of the votes were cast in person on Election Day. More votes will probably be sent in this year by mail or cast in September and October. That risks coverage misfires: In 2018, cable news commentators spent election night suggesting that the “blue wave” hadn’t arrived. But they were simply impatient: The Democratic surge showed up when the final California races were called weeks later. If the 2016 election had been conducted amid the expected surge in mail-in voting because of the coronavirus crisis, the Pennsylvania results might not have been counted until Thanksgiving.

Then, there’s the continuing Trump-era political crisis, often driven on Twitter and Facebook. President Trump last Thursday again sought to call mail-in voting into question with false claims about fraud. If you want a glimpse of how this could play out in November, look to 2018, when Mr. Trump tweeted the suggestion, “Call for a new election?” when the Republican nominee for Senate in Arizona fell behind as mail ballots were counted.

These are hard challenges. The media specializes in fighting the last war, and has done a decent job this cycle of avoiding the mistakes of 2016. Reporters are calling out Mr. Trump’s falsehoods, showing skepticism about polls and avoiding turning politics into a sport.

But the American media plays a bizarrely outsize role in American elections, occupying the place of most countries’ national election commissions.

Here, the media actually assembles the results from 50 states, tabulates them and declares a victor. And — we can’t really help ourselves — the media establishes the narrative to explain what happened. That task was most memorably mishandled in 2000, when inaccurate calls that George W. Bush had won Florida led to a wild retraction by Vice President Al Gore of the concession he had offered to Mr. Bush earlier that evening, followed by weeks of uncertainty.

The flashy graphics and sober, confident hosts embody a long tradition of television flimflam. When CBS invented the election night tradition of dramatic vote projections and official calls in 1952, it outfitted its set with a blinking, Remington Rand Univac computer. The blinking device made for a good show. But the computer was a prop, a fake, as the historian Jill Lepore noted in her podcast, The Last Archive.

The TV presentation is always slick, but the underpinnings of county-by-county electoral systems are baroque and antiquated. And the pandemic means more people will vote by mail this year, in states with little experience processing those votes.

“There’s a lot of planning for the whiz-bang graphics, and not enough planning for avoiding undermining trust in the American electoral system,” said Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth political scientist and one of the authors of an April report on how to run a fair election during the pandemic. “It’s not going to be great TV, it might not be viral content, but it’s the truth.”

Some particularly wonky journalists are trying to lay the groundwork. NBC’s Chuck Todd said in June that he has been having “major nightmares” about the election, and his First Read newsletter has been referring to “election week” instead of Election Day.

But at the highest levels of most news organizations and the big social media platforms, executives and insiders told me that it simply hasn’t sunk in how different this year is going to be — and how to prepare audiences for it.

Though the hosts and news executives I talked to all take preparations seriously, many seemed to be preparing for this election as they have for others in the past, and some waved off my alarmism.

“We don’t want to create a self-fulfilling prophecy of chaos and confusion or suggest somehow that that’s a preordained outcome,” said the president of NBC News, Noah Oppenheim.

Mr. Oppenheim’s optimism is a bit hard to justify. The April report on running a fair election offers two recommendations for the media, which it’s mostly been ignoring. First, undertake an intense campaign to explain to voters how the process will actually work this year. And second, teach the public patience.

That’s not the media’s instinct. CNN did the opposite this February, when the Iowa caucuses were slow to report results and the network put on a “count-up” clock, impatiently tapping its foot for a result and signaling that there’s something wrong with a slow, careful count.

Another, smaller but important change that many political types suggest: Get rid of the misleading “percent of precincts reporting” measure. In states like Pennsylvania and Michigan, it would be easy to have 100 percent of precincts reporting their Election Day results — but have mail-in votes piled up in a warehouse, uncounted.

There are some encouraging signs. CNN and The Associated Press, among others, have devoted far more reporting resources than usual to informing audiences just how elections work and to lowering their expectations of quick results. Mr. Oppenheim says NBC is doubling the size of the team that covers election security and misinformation.

“It’s always an unfair standard to expect that kind of movie-like experience on election night,” said David Scott, deputy managing editor at the AP.

And CNN’s Washington bureau chief, Sam Feist, and the CBS News elections and surveys director, Anthony Salvanto, both told me they’ve moved away from using the percent of precincts reporting measure.

A top Times editor, Steve Duenes, said The Times was considering alternatives to the single, predictive needle that offered readers false confidence in 2016, and is looking at a “range of tools.”

But what the moment calls for, most of all, is patience. And good luck with that.

Nobody I talked to had any real idea how cable talkers or Twitter take-mongers would fill hours, days and, possibly, weeks of counting or how to apply a sober, careful lens to the wild allegations — rigged voting machines, mysterious buses of outsiders turning up at poll sites — that surface every election night, only to dissolve in the light of day.

Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, told me in a brief interview on Saturday that he’s planning to brace his audience for the postelection period. He said the site planned a round of education aimed at “getting people ready for the fact that there’s a high likelihood that it takes days or weeks to count this — and there’s nothing wrong or illegitimate about that.” And he said that Facebook is considering new rules regarding premature claims of victory or other statements about the results. He added that the company’s election center will rely on wire services for definitive results.

It’s possible, of course, that Joe Biden will win by a margin so large that Florida will be called for him early. Barring that, it’s tempting to say responsible voices should keep their mouths shut and switch over for a few days to Floor Is Lava, and give the nice local volunteers time to count the votes. That, however, would just cede the conversation to the least responsible, and conspiratorial, voices.

The Republican secretary of state of Ohio, Frank LaRose, said he hoped that the time spent waiting for results could become a kind of civics lesson, with footage of volunteers feeding ballots into machines. Alex Padilla, the Democratic California secretary of state, suggested that television companies look to a Hollywood model: “You can’t think of Election Day as a single movie — you have to treat it as maybe a trilogy,” he said.

He didn’t say which movie.

But conveniently, a group of former top government officials called the Transition Integrity Project actually gamed four possible scenarios, including one that doesn’t look that different from 2016: a big popular win for Mr. Biden, and a narrow electoral defeat, presumably reached after weeks of counting the votes in Pennsylvania. For their war game, they cast John Podesta, who was Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, in the role of Mr. Biden. They expected him, when the votes came in, to concede, just as Mrs. Clinton had.

But Mr. Podesta, playing Mr. Biden, shocked the organizers by saying he felt his party wouldn’t let him concede. Alleging voter suppression, he persuaded the governors of Wisconsin and Michigan to send pro-Biden electors to the Electoral College.

In that scenario, California, Oregon, and Washington then threatened to secede from the United States if Mr. Trump took office as planned. The House named Mr. Biden president; the Senate and White House stuck with Mr. Trump. At that point in the scenario, the nation stopped looking to the media for cues, and waited to see what the military would do.