I’m pretty sure the point of Labor Day was for folks (especially union members like me) to NOT work, yet somehow I’m writing this on what was summer’s last holiday for most of you. Did someone forward you this email? Sign up at inquirer.com/bunch to receive this newsletter weekly, and make my holiday labors worthwhile.
Calls of a stolen presidential election ... coming from inside the White House. A move by Attorney General William Barr to seize disputed mail-in ballots in key battleground states. Republican state legislatures in Wisconsin or Michigan or even here in Pennsylvania voting to seat pro-President Trump members of the Electoral College — despite vote counts showing his rival Joe Biden in the lead.
OK, some of that sounds like a Trump resister’s fever dream of the November election, ripped from a conspiratorial Twitter feed. But in fact it’s the work product of a group called the Transition Integrity Project — headed by a Georgetown law professor, Rosa Brooks, and involving high-level veteran insiders from both parties. It recently conducted “war games” on how various scenarios might play out in the fall election, and the results were mostly alarming.
Brooks wrote recently in the Washington Post — in a piece titled “What’s the worst that could happen?” — that in looking at several possible scenarios, the project played out two where no one was the clear winner by the January 20, 2021, inauguration date and three where there were “massive disinformation campaigns, violence in the streets and a constitutional impasse.”
In modern America, with its deeper partisan rifts, voters tend to panic before every election. I still remember in the 2000s that some on the left were certain that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney wouldn’t leave office and might start a war in Iran for good measure. Those things didn’t happen, but 2020 seems different.
Two things are driving this: One of them is named Donald Trump with the, um, unique gifts he’s brought to the presidency, including a tendency to attack and undermine the democratic process. Then there’s the evolution of the way Americans cast our ballots, which has accelerated in 2020 because of the global pandemic. We’ve given people more ways to vote — that’s a good thing — but doing that has slowed the vote counting. The era of calling the presidential winner at 9 p.m. on Election Night died with MySpace and Blockbuster Video.
That puts a special burden on America’s news media, especially TV news, to grasp that things are fundamentally different — and that the stakes have never been higher. With Election Day only eight weeks away, journalists need for once not to tamp down conspiracy theories but embrace the justified alarmism of these election “war games.” The leaders of CNN, NBC News, Fox News (yes, Fox News), ABC, CBS, the New York Times, Washington Post, Associated Press and others need to start today thinking about how to inform the public on what’s going to happen on November 3 and in the week or two after, and have a real plan for how to accurately report it.
Other media critics are already on the case. Also in the Washington Post, columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote this weekend that newsrooms will need to “reject their ingrained instincts to find a clear narrative — including the answer to the question ’who won?’ — and stay with the uncertainty, if that’s indeed what’s happening.”
I believe that means the leaders of these news orgs will have to do some things they don’t normally do: Talk to each other, and hopefully even collaborate. It can be done — for many election cycles the major TV networks have shared their exit-polling data. But the issue that worries me for 2020 will be extreme pressure on journalists to call states early — before the vote counting is complete, and thus possibly incorrectly.
Here’s what I think a real plan would look like. The relevant leaders of the top TV networks, newspapers, etc., should hold a pre-election summit — sooner rather than later. They should agree — at the very minimum — to resist pressure to declare a winner in the first 24 hours after the polls close, and to develop a plan to cooperate on when and how each state victor is announced. Maybe even agree to issue a nightly state-of-the-vote-count joint communique that explains to citizens where things really stand — in non-sensational terms.
Of course, traditional media isn’t the only ingredient in America’s recipe for a fall political meltdown. It would sure help if social-media networks, especially Facebook, cracked down on false information in a way they haven’t yet. Trump and, frankly, the most rabid partisans on both sides are going to do their thing no matter what, which is why the leaders of America’s news outlets need to put on their big-boy pants (to paraphrase a hockey coach) and get proactive.
For four years, many of us have been waving our arms about the essential role that good journalism plays in a functioning democracy — hoping to drown out a demagogue who’s declared the media “enemies of the people.” This fraught national moment is an opportunity for the profession not only to rise to the occasion but go beyond the call of duty. If news orgs can calmly steer their audience through the rapids of 2020, they might even clear the way for a future in which facts and expertise will begin to matter again.