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Calling It

Can the TV networks get it right on Nov. 3?

The concept of election night is a fiction, and a precarious fiction at that. We may realize, after it’s too late, that our system of elections on a national scale is like the New Orleans levees before Katrina, or Chernobyl’s RBMK-1000 reactor before April 1986, or the Hindenburg before it entered U.S. airspace in 1937.

We know the system is antiquated and inconsistent. We know it’s rickety and vulnerable. It might even be afloat on combustible gas.

Still, on Nov. 3 the best we can do is hope that what’s worked before will work again, with the proviso that the idea of election night having “worked” is based on its having never been truly tested. The problem isn’t just the thorniness of a very close election, as was the case in 2000. This year the problem is that one of the two candidates has indicated he will engage in disinformation to make it seem like a win for him, even if it’s not.

Democratic pollsters funded by Michael Bloomberg have named the scenario where more electoral votes ultimately go to Joe Biden but not before television presents us with a short-term picture that has Donald Trump in the lead on election night. They call it the “red mirage.” The red mirage rests on the fact that Republicans are apt to vote in person whereas Democrats are more likely to vote by mail—this year in astounding numbers—turning the “Election Day vote” into more of an election week(s) vote as those mailed ballots are counted.

For a president entirely unbound by fact, the mere impression of a victory, one that superficially looks like what Americans are used to, is an opportunity for disinformation. Also, it will be tempting to highlight and exaggerate every instance of voting irregularity, turning a rumor of mishandled ballots into a casus belli. Indeed, the president is already sowing doubt and laying the groundwork to disenfranchise millions of mail-in voters. Though a red mirage may only last a day or two, it could be enough for Trump to persuade the country that what it sees, based on the familiar fiction of election night, is the full story.

It falls to a fragile and hectored institution—the media—to keep this from happening. The media was once the ultimate gatekeeper. Now, it can still break stories and advance news, but it has little power of correction. Conspiracymonger Dan Bongino has more Twitter followers than the Washington Post has subscribers. Public trust in the media has declined. And yet, on every election, Americans turn on the TV expecting to find out, in real time, who won. And the networks are aware of the tremendous power they still possess to define the narrative. For years they’ve done so by wrongly branding election night as discrete and definitive. This year, they seem to understand the stakes and are trying to correct the decadeslong misimpression they have perpetuated. But it may be hard to break from tradition, no matter how well-intentioned individuals on the different decision desks may be.

This week, on my podcast The Gist (available wherever you get your favorite podcasts), I’m plumbing those stakes and the minds of those people whose job is to deal with them. I speak with Dan Rather about his front-row position during the seesawing 2000 Bush vs. Gore election and the criticism that the networks (including his) advantaged one candidate over the other by misstating the results. I also provide a citizen’s guide on the misinformation to watch out for, which I discuss with an expert on right-wing media. But first, in a conversation excerpted below, I talk to NBC’s Steve Kornacki, a master of election night district maps, about how his network is approaching what we won’t know by the night’s end. And I ask Brian Stelter of CNN about the dynamic in perhaps the most important newsroom in terms of impact: Fox News. If the hard-news people at Fox hold any sway over the prime-time opinion hosts, that alone would do much to, if not prevent the red mirage, at least make it a little purple.

On the other side of the coin is the Associated Press, whose calls will be relied on by much of the rest of the media, given the resources it’s committed to making the most accurate calls possible. I talk with Julie Pace, the AP’s Washington bureau chief, about the thousands of workers the organization is deploying to keep the evening as free of mirage as possible.

The argument Trump could make on Nov. 3 is a version of the argument he’s been making all along: Believe your screens and what I tell you they’re saying, and disbelieve the poindexters making excuses around a vote-counting process I’ve tried to discredit. Trump understands the power of television, and he will appeal to that power to determine reality. It’s television that has declared the next president for as long as everyone watching can remember.

Of course, it’s possible there will be no red mirage. Maybe there will be a blue wave. I don’t know if one is more likely than the other. It’s a fool’s errand to attach percentages to either outcome. Both are sufficiently plausible that we need to gird for either.

If no red mirage emerges, some will treat these warnings like the coverage of a hurricane that blew itself out before making landfall. I’d like to think, were that to happen, we might still recognize how close we came to chaos. And that we would reform accordingly.

My prescription would be for all of us as Americans to expand our definition of civic obligation: not just to vote, but to practice and proselytize proper media hygiene during an election. This includes sternly warning our so-inclined relatives away from questionable Facebook sources. But it also means spreading the news, loudly, among associates and loved ones that, rickety as it is, the vote count is reliable, and it is increasingly happening over far longer than one day. A good way to defuse conspiracies is to accurately warn beforehand what will happen before it has a chance to surprise and destabilize. Take an eclipse—by telling everyone the moon is about to briefly block the light of the sun, we reduce its ability to freak people out as a sign of end days. Election night is no longer a TV show but a stress test, and it’s one we can pass. But it will take work.

Excerpts from Mike Pesca’s interviews with NBC’s Steve Kornacki and CNN’s Brian Stelter have been edited for clarity and length.

Steve Kornacki

Pesca: Election night is huge for ratings for the networks. Is there any reconsideration of what your network is going to do to communicate that maybe this is not just a night that will determine the election?

Kornacki: There’s a lot of attention being paid right now to the states where it has the most obvious potential to be messy and protracted. There’s a mix, though. There are also states where there’s the potential to get a speedy sort of traditional election night result. So I think the challenge from my standpoint, just being on the air election night is knowing going in which states we’re going to be getting most, if not all [results], and which states were going to be getting only a very, very skeletal share.

[It’s about] having a sense of what buckets we’re looking at. Hey, we’ve got 60 percent of Georgia, is this in-person early vote? Is this mail-in vote? Are these votes that were cast today? Being able to communicate that and if it’s looking like a lot of states are not callable on election night, just being able to say that we don’t know. And this is going to continue and bringing people along in that process, and not trying to rush it, and not trying to force it.

What we as the viewer sees [is that] you are crunching the numbers more than anyone else. And I suppose this also means that you have a connection to the people backstage who are actually literally making the call. But if you could just kind of take me through it, how much does your insight influence what the network is factoring in, in order to make the call? And when they do make the call, how is that communicated through you and to you?

There’s sort of a recognition, I think in news media, that the independence of a decision desk, whether it’s here or ABC or CBS, or anywhere, without any kind of interference of perception of interference is just paramount on election night. The modern history of this is it goes back 20 years. It goes back to the 2000 election, and Florida was initially called for Gore. Then they pulled it back and they called it for Bush, and they pulled it back [again].

And I think the modern construction of the decision desks dates back to that, to 2000, and to the sort of the sanctity of that independence. So they are ultimately making every call you see. Nobody is telling them what to do in any way, but they’re also a resource for us. They are people we are in contact with. We run things by them: What are you seeing here? We think we’re seeing this; are you seeing this too by the district? So checking trends, checking numbers, but the decision is the decision desk and that’s theirs alone.

Let’s go through a couple of the perceived swing states and what you know about them now in terms of when there’ll be reporting. So from what I hear, Florida actually will have results, because they count their ballots [ahead of time], and they’re ready to go on Election Day. So it’s likely we’ll get good solid results from Florida.

That’s the irony, right? I mean the biggest modern election night disaster for a presidential election was Florida. And the biggest single hope I think for clarity on election night 2020 is Florida. The procedure in Florida in a lot of ways—they were kind of doing COVID elections before there was COVID. All registered voters in Florida can get a mail-in ballot that precedes the pandemic. So that’s something that was already established; that’s something that’s already common. Voters are accustomed to it I think in a lot of ways. Election officials are accustomed to processing it. Florida has a procedure that not every state has.

So what are the states that are the opposite of Florida? What are the important swing states where there might be a big delay in actually knowing how the vote went?

Yeah, so a good example of this I think is Pennsylvania. We say Florida has been doing this for a long time. Pennsylvania is new to it. I think a big part of it is they are doing extensive mail-in voting for the first time so not every state’s even taken that step.

There’s this theory, red mirage—and it’s not a neutral term because mirage means it’s not real. Do you have any thoughts on the concern about a red mirage?

We’re in uncharted waters here, so part of me feels like I don’t want to be dismissive of anything. I’m hopeful we’ll get some full state reports, some full state results. I’m not guaranteeing it because again, I mean, it could be election 2000 again. But I’m hopeful we’re going to get states where we get full or pretty full results on election night. And likely they’ll be pointing in one direction or the other; maybe it will be pointing to a very close race. The scenario you’re describing [is] where there’s very, very partial results from a few states, and that becomes the basis for the claim of a clear result from any side. It’s hard for me [to see that happening], just imagining how I’m going to be handling election night and how I imagine people are going to be watching it.

No one actually officially makes the call on election night. It’s just been ceded to the networks and the AP, right? Do you think that if you and your colleagues in TV news and the AP do their job really well, that that will be enough to avoid any lingering question about who really is the next president?

I think if we do our job well, my network, my colleagues, my peers at other networks, I think there will be confidence. There should be confidence I think in the result of the election. If we do our job well, even if it takes days or a week or two weeks to get to a final result, if we do our job well, we will have taken the viewers one step at a time through that process. As sort of complicated and winding as it is, it will make sense why it’s taking so long and it won’t seem nefarious. And the result, wherever it lands, will be a result.

Brian Stelter

Pesca: Do you think if the three broadcast networks and the two major cable news networks that aren’t Fox are all essentially sending the proper message that it might be too early to tell who has won, will that counteract whatever messaging Trump and Trumpists have either via Fox or online sources?

Stelter: All I can say is I hope so, but I think we live in a polarized information environment wherein most people are not consuming hyperpartisan news all the time, but they do see it some places sometimes. And then there’s certainly a really intense political junkie audience that is glued to Fox that does believe the deep state is out to get Trump or that opts into that storyline for various reasons. There are certain people who choose to believe that the elections are rigged, because it’s part of a storyline that they are familiar with and that they accept. That’s not the majority of the population. In fact, it’s not even close to the majority. It is a sliver of the country, but that sliver is still vocal and can still be impactful. And that sliver, of course, includes the president of the United States.

But most people, they consume the news like a sponge. They see it from NBC or the AP, or CNN. And I think those outlets clearly are going to be responsible. I think a lot of pressure is on Fox about how Fox handles the selection process. The network has a strong decision desk. They have veterans who know how to project races, who know how to make calls. They have strong news anchors who understand what’s at stake here, but Fox also has really, really loud propagandists who are more popular than the newsmen. So the pressure will be on the Murdochs to let the news outweigh and outshine the propaganda.

What are some election night signs that we should be concerned about, if we see certain things happening on Fox that aren’t happening elsewhere?

Historically Fox’s coverage on election nights has been produced by the news side, not the opinion side. Now I understand those two sides have blurred a lot, but the anchors are Bret Baier, Martha MacCallum; the commentators are people like Chris Wallace and Brit Hume. In 2018 during the midterms, Sean Hannity never even made a single appearance on election night coverage. I think if we see Hannity and we see Laura Ingraham or Tucker Carlson—if they’re calling in, if they’re appearing on the air and they’re shouting about fraud, and they’re shouting about a rigged election, that is deeply troubling, that will be deeply troubling.

So even beforehand, we could get a sense of where Fox is going with this. If they announced, “Our huge election night lineup,” and you see Tucker, Laura, and Hannity as part of that.

That’s right. But I think the plan is already in place that it will be the news anchors. At the end of the day, election night’s one of the only nights of the year when the news anchors win and the opinion people take the night off. But let’s play out a scenario where two days into vote counting when Biden clearly has an edge, but the networks are trying to be very careful and are trying to make sure that more ballots arrive by mail and are counted by the states. Let’s imagine a scenario where Sean Hannity’s show is back on, and he’s in touch with Trump. And he has Trump calling in ranting and raving about a rigged election, ranting and raving about the election being stolen.

To let that out on the air unchecked will do serious damage. So election night is one thing, and I think Fox has a certain plan for election night, but let’s game it out a few days. If the Fox propagandists who are more popular among the audience are given that unchecked power to spread lies and smears, then that’s going to be a real problem.

Tuesday: Julie Pace of the Associated Press.

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