Prepared for anything: US networks brace 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 unfavourable.

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

People watch from their vehicle as President Donald Trump, on left of video screen, and Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speak during a Presidential Debate Watch Party at Fort Mason Center in San Francisco
People watch from their vehicle as President Donald Trump, on left of video screen, and Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speak during a Presidential Debate Watch Party at Fort Mason Center in San FranciscoCredit:AP

“Frankly, the wellbeing 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 (US time) to make sense of a confusing vote count and learn the future of their country — made similar pledges.

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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.

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. Our job is to be prepared for all of them.

NBC executive Noah Oppenheim

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.

The “decision desks,” the teams of data experts at news organisations 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.”

Networks are preparing for a range of scenarios during election night.
Networks are preparing for a range of scenarios during election night. Credit:AP

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 rumours can overwhelm careful journalism.

There is also open concern among Democrats that President Donald 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,” 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.”

Fox News, home to several of Trump’s most loyal media allies, will receive particular scrutiny. The network’s election telecast will be led by the anchors Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, although pro-Trump opinion stars like Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham are likely to pop in occasionally, said Jay Wallace, president of Fox News Media, who oversees news coverage.

Asked if he would put Trump on the air if the president dialled into the Fox control room on election night, Wallace said: “Honestly, we’d have to see what was going on.” But he called that scenario “unlikely,” in part because Trump’s preferred opinion hosts won’t be guiding the broadcast.

“I wouldn’t think he would call in, knowing that the squad is on that is on,” 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 the Fox News 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 Republican strategist Karl Rove questioned his projection that Barack Obama would be re-elected. Mishkin, like vote counters at rival networks, will be sequestered from the anchor team on election night, an effort that news organisations say shields the decision desk from competitive pressures.

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, 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.”

The New York Times

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