Ben Smith NYT media column:
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….
ome 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.
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.”
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….
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.