Postmortem of 2020 Election Night

It’s easier to judge an event and the people involved in it once the incident is over and the parties involved have left the room. Looking back at my own life, I realize there have been moments when I acted foolishly on the fly. Maybe a look back at the election just passed will bring a different perspective to this major political event in a unique year that took no prisoners.

Blown Coverage

In football, sportscasters use the term “blown coverage” when a defensive player misses an assignment and allows a large gain by the offense. This usually involves the quarterback throwing a “bomb,” which is an extremely long pass to a receiver running quickly downfield. It’s embarrassing to the defense when it fails, but an exciting play for the offense. The entire world is now waiting for confirmation about who will become the US president for the next four years and we don’t need anyone bombing the coverage.

In the beginning of September, I took the liberty of sending a letter to the presidents or CEOs of all the major American media news outlets to share my “humble” advice with the people who controlled election night coverage. Here is that letter:

Dear News Executive:

You have an election night responsibility beyond your standard operating procedures. Just as you wouldn’t purposely create panic due to misinformation about a virus or natural disaster, you surely don’t want to force a constitutional crisis by announcing incorrect election results. So, what exactly should you do on election night? I have some suggestions.

First, this election will not be a sprint; it will be a marathon. You will want to have a grand conclusion on election night, but that is highly unlikely. All media outlets should agree that none will forecast any state result until the Secretary of State codifies their winners. I know this will take discipline on your part, but should you feel reluctant to slow things down just remember how foolish you looked with the Gore vs. Bush fiasco. You must manage the expectations of all Americans, while ignoring any conspiracy minded elephant in the room.

You might want to consider changing the format of election coverage. Instead of reporters jumping between multiple screens with miniscule bits of data, maybe employ an “appointment viewing” concept such as, 2020 RETURNS, GET AN UPDATE EVERY TWENTY MINUTES. Give us short, factual information packets and tell your audience you’ll stay on the air until all the ballots are counted. Think of the potential of increased viewing during the entire week.

I know you will be tempted to use exit polls to embellish the coverage because the results will be slow in coming, but I urge you not to do that. If you predict an outcome while ballots are still being counted, you will not only play into conspiracy theories that our election is corrupt, fixed or rigged, but you will confuse the voters. Yes, as much as your million-dollar graphics and skillful on-the-fly pundits and experts deserve to be seen and heard, it will be disastrous if you are later accused of lying.

The “red mirage” being talked about is a real possibility. Americans must believe you and trust that the election results you broadcast are real. Your reputations are presently diminished in the beacons-of-truth and accurate information categories. It’s not entirely your fault. As I have said to my neighbors, we won’t agree on talking points, but we must always agree on facts. It’s your job to deliver verified truth in a way that the word “retraction” is never needed.

You can avoid the crossfire if you ignore the temptation to be sucked into the hyperbole and misdirection of being first with the results. Please, think about how to make this a positive, fact-based event, not a mistake.

I don’t claim to be a visionary or media guru, but my soft warning was mostly ignored. There were some who got it, like Fox News’ Chris Wallace reporting on election night that major swings in the results were likely due to shifts in the ballots that were bring counting. Wallace correctly said, “That’s not anybody stealing the election. That’s simply the order in which votes are being counted.”

Not all of our media outlets did that. CNN’s John King and NBC’s Steve Kornacki frantically poked their touch screens, constantly flipping between 2016 stats and the current race with non-stop, incomprehensible babble about the “meaning” of the incomplete tallies. I guess they have only one format, one speed, one protocol for election night, and they weren’t about to modify that for you, the viewer. It’s what they do.

The combination of the media’s sleight of hand and President Donald John Trump’s fake victory speech at two o’clock in the morning made this coverage terrible, by any measure. From the East Room of the White House, the President attacked the legitimate vote counting effort, baselessly calling it “fraud.” Trump eventually claimed he “did win the election,” despite the millions of votes that were not yet counted. Had the media better managed election expectations, the blathering of crazy man Trump would have had a much-reduced effect.

There is no doubt that former Vice President Joe Biden is the president-elect, but that is not stopping Trump from building a mountain of misinformation around himself and the election results. His hardcore sycophants will continue to wave their flags and march in the streets until the dull orange man in the White House admits he’s lost the election and proceeds with the peaceful transfer of power. He must do this.

The TV and news programmers achieved their goal of holding us to their coverage for as long as possible, but at what cost? The cable news channels did an incredibly great job of repulsing people. Saturday morning, I called two good friends about the Biden victory. They didn’t know because they had turned off the electronic hype. Great job, media!

This was an interesting election, the only ever conducted in the midst of a pandemic with a lunatic liar as the incumbent. Hopefully, this environment will not occur for at least another hundred years. Trump will be a distant memory by then, and we will have learned valuable lessons about the deadly combination of an insidious virus and a fatuous fraud in the White House.

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  1. As usual, your commentary makes reasonable, well-presented points. But have a little sympathy for those of us who, every four years, get caught up in the hype and hysteria that is the presidential contest. For us, it is a full season of football weekends spread out over 18 to 20 months. Or 24, depending. Football fans know their stats, their heroes and their heroic weaknesses. Those of us following the presidential race also become informed about the field. We want to be sure the rest of you are selecting from the very best America has to offer, or at least, the person least likely to do real damage. You can imagine how fraught the last four years have been. I admit there have been days when even I was bored, but had I not come to appreciate wall- to-wall coverage of America’s #1 horserace during the first Trump debacle, I would not have been tuned in the day Steve Kornacki (or was it Chris Hayes?) referred to the Independent Senator from Vermont who usually caucuses with the Democrats, as the esteemed Bernie Sandwich. I am not making that up. I will grant you that, as presented, there is a lot of dead time in election night coverage. They could fill that with the country music awards. Pundits are called upon to conjure opinions on things NONE OF US could possibly predict with any degree of accuracy. And the numbers get muddled, peoples’ kids wander into the bookcase-lined background, and anchors step on one anothers lines. Not to mention toes. But I wouldn’t miss it for the world! It’s the Superbowl of political gamesmanship. And sometimes it is every bit as boring.

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