By:
November 2, 2020

NBC News’ Lester Holt doesn’t know who is going to win the presidential election. He isn’t even sure when a winner will be declared. But he’s prepared for everything and anything.

“If you want to use this as a bellwether,” Holt told me, “I am bringing a change of clothes and an extra suit.”

Yes, the most bizarre, surreal and divisive presidential election of our lives might turn into the most bizarre, surreal and divisive Election Day. Or week. Or month. On the eve of this historic presidential election, I talked to Holt — the “Nightly News” anchor who will lead NBC’s election night coverage with Savannah Guthrie — about what to expect, how Americans are thinking and what it’s like to be a journalist in these strange and divisive times.

Over the past couple of weeks, Holt has traveled around the country, talking to voters, and one thing has stood out.

“I have a sense that people are walking on eggshells,” Holt said.

For instance, he said he spoke to a longtime Republican who was going to vote for Joe Biden this time around. They looked around her neighborhood — which was full of yard signs for both President Donald Trump and Biden. She told Holt that times are tough, that every conversation with a neighbor or relative is on edge because of politics. Some topics are left unspoken to avoid conflict and more stress.

Emotions are so raw and tension is so high that many can’t wait until Tuesday.

“People are looking forward to the election being over, but there’s a palpable anxiety over what happens after the votes are counted and whether people will accept the outcome,” Holt said.

There was a time when it seemed unfathomable in the United States that anyone would not accept the results of an election. Now it almost seems as if it’s a certainty.

“Let’s not walk around this, the president of the United States has put that out there, that the only way he would lose is if there was fraud,” Holt said. “He laid it on the table.”

Trump continues to do so. Axios’ Jonathan Swan reported Sunday that Trump has told confidants that he will declare early victory on Tuesday if he is ahead in certain swing states. The problem, of course, is many mail-in ballots in many states won’t be counted early. For example, Pennsylvania — which could be the deciding state in this election — doesn’t start counting mail-in votes until Election Day. Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar told NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday that there could be as many as 10 times the mail-in ballots than in 2016, and it would take longer to count this year, perhaps a couple of days. It sets up this scenario: Trump might look like he is leading Pennsylvania on Tuesday night, he declares victory, and then Biden ends up winning Pennsylvania after all ballots are tallied.

Swan wrote, “Trump’s team is preparing to claim baselessly that if that process changes the outcome in Pennsylvania from the picture on election night, then Democrats would have ‘stolen’ the election. Trump’s advisers have been laying the groundwork for this strategy for weeks, but this is the first account of Trump explicitly discussing his election night intentions.”

As Holt said, Trump is the most influential voice in the country, so the idea that the election could be rigged is not a media creation, but the words of the president. That’s why Holt sees election night coverage as critical. Every word, every report from the field, every look at the map, everything must be spot-on.

“We don’t know how this is going to go,” Holt said. “It could be called late night on Tuesday, or the next day or the day after. But that’s something we’re going to fret about.”

Election night is like the Super Bowl for journalists, Holt said. It always is. But this election night presents something TV networks have never had to deal with: a once-in-a-hundred-year pandemic. Holt has been anchoring the “NBC Nightly News” mostly from home during the coronavirus, but he will be in the studio on Tuesday. NBC has put extra precautions in place to make sure everyone is safe. According to Holt, however, that means “everything just takes a little longer and a lot more thought. … At the end of the day, everything revolves around COVID.”

The stakes are as high as they’ve ever been. Holt is well aware of that, after anchoring the nightly news in these incredibly newsworthy times. In the past year, we’ve had the coronavirus, questions about race and racial tensions in this country, presidential debates, a Supreme Court opening and major weather events, such as hurricanes and wildfires.

“Once upon a time there was a thing called a Slow News Day,” Holt said. “It just feels like we’re drinking out of a firehose every night. We have to make those tough calls. … There are some days where we say, ‘We’ve got three leads tonight.’ It’s a really, really exciting time to be a journalist in our country right now. We are challenged on so many levels.”

No more so than having the responsibility of telling stories that impact the lives of Americans. These are scary, uncertain times and Holt knows people are looking to journalists for answers.

“I have people often ask me, ‘Are we going to be OK?’” Holt said. “And I’m like, ‘I don’t know.’ But it shows you the trust they put in our broadcast, this belief in us that we have our finger on the pulse of the country. It reminds me of the responsibility that we have. It has been very difficult. In the political season, we’re always very conscious of perceptions. But at the same time we can’t step away and look at things in a vacuum. We have to confront them. And so when lies are told, we have to confront them, especially when they compromise or jeopardize the health and well being of our viewers. We have to tell it like it is.”

In these moments, Holt said it’s important to offer his thoughts to viewers, to just put into words what many Americans are feeling and thinking.

“It’s always a little bit of a tight walk because I’m not a commentator,” Holt said. “But I recognize that we have a huge responsibility and that people are depending on us not only for the facts of the day, but they really want that texture and perspective on the events of the day.”

Now onto the rest of today’s newsletter …

Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania

The Marine One helicopter, with President Donald Trump aboard, lands at the Altoona-Blair County Airport in Pennsylvania last week. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

As I mentioned above, there is a focus on Pennsylvania and how mail-in votes will be counted. During an appearance on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” on Sunday, CNN Washington bureau chief Sam Feist told host Brian Stelter that if the election does come down to Pennsylvania, we probably won’t know the winner on election night.

“Donald Trump could have an artificial lead in the state of Pennsylvania,” said Feist, who said that lead could disappear after mail-in votes are tabulated.

Feist said, “We can expect them to not finish counting until Wednesday, Thursday or even Friday. Just because it takes longer doesn’t mean anything is wrong. They’re going to do it methodically.”

For the record, Trump denied the Axios report that he would declare an early victory before all ballots were counted. However, in a rally Sunday night, Trump was continuing to promise a fight if all ballots in Pennsylvania aren’t counted by Tuesday night.

Be right, not first

Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan has a new column out: “Election Day Will Be the Media’s D-Day. The Skill We Need Most is the One We’ve Never Mastered.”

And what skill is that? Sullivan writes, “Journalists at this fraught moment carry a heavy burden to do something that is not in their nature: To be patient, to linger with the uncertainty and to explain relentlessly rather than join a rush to judgment.”

Yes, patience will be the key, and also something that will be really hard to practice knowing that audiences so desperately want to skip ahead to the last page of this book. Sullivan wrote, “Decades ago, CBS anchor Dan Rather would utter the word ‘courage’ as he wrapped up his evening newscast. As Tuesday approaches, I’ll urge a different virtue, both for those who transmit the news and those who consume it: Patience.”

Fenced in

In a stunning and uncommon move, The Atlantic has retracted a feature story about the world of niche sports. After questions about the story were raised by Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple, The Atlantic added a lengthy (777 words) editor’s note correcting some of the problems with the story. But then Sunday night, it completely retracted the story and explained why in another editor’s note. It began by saying:

After The Atlantic published this article, new information emerged that raised serious concerns about its accuracy, and about the credibility of the author, Ruth Shalit Barrett.

We have decided to retract this article. We cannot attest to the trustworthiness and credibility of the author, and therefore we cannot attest to the veracity of the article.

We draw a distinction between retraction and removal. We believe that scrubbing the article from the internet would not meet our standards for transparency, and we believe it is important to preserve access to the article for the historical record. We have decided to take down the online version but to make available a PDF of the article as it appears in our November 2020 issue.

There were several problems with the story, among them being that the main source in the story did not have a son, but said she did so she couldn’t easily be identified. After initially lying to her editors, Barrett admitted to The Atlantic that she was “complicit” in making up the son. In addition, Barrett seems to have either lied about or exaggerated injuries sustained by those who participated in a fencing tournament. These are just a few of the issues with the story, which Wemple describes in detail for his Post blog.

By the way, Wemple previously pointed out that the story’s author, Ruth S. Barrett, is actually Ruth Shalit. Wemple wrote that Shalit, in the 1990s, was “busted in two significant instances of plagiarism, which she blamed on accidental cut-and-paste operations.” She also was criticized for significant factual errors in a 1995 story about race at The Washington Post in The New Republic.

The Atlantic retraction note went into detail about Barrett, saying:

We decided to assign Barrett this freelance story in part because more than two decades separated her from her journalistic malpractice at The New Republic and because in recent years her work has appeared in reputable magazines. We took into consideration the argument that Barrett deserved a second chance to write feature stories such as this one. We were wrong to make this assignment, however. It reflects poor judgment on our part, and we regret our decision.

Our fact-checking department thoroughly checked this piece, speaking with more than 40 sources and independently corroborating information. But we now know that the author misled our fact-checkers, lied to our editors, and is accused of inducing at least one source to lie to our fact-checking department. We believe that these actions fatally undermined the effectiveness of the fact-checking process. It is impossible for us to vouch for the accuracy of this article. This is what necessitates a full retraction. We apologize to our readers.

About this latest scandal, Wemple’s antennae went up when he saw descriptions of serious injuries to fencers in a sport where such injuries are rare. This was solid work by Wemple and, while it appears The Atlantic dropped the ball when it allowed the story to be published, it does seem to be taking the problems with the story seriously.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette endorses Trump

(AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

No big surprise here, but the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s editorial board is endorsing Donald Trump for president. The paper’s publisher, John Robinson Block, has publicly shown his support for Trump in the past. Like many of the editorials that support Trump, the P-G editorial spends half of its opinion acknowledging Trump’s unbecoming ways.

For instance, it wrote, “We share the embarrassment of millions of Americans who are disturbed by the president’s unpresidential manners and character — his rudeness and put-downs and bragging and bending of the truth. None of this can be justified. The president’s behavior often has diminished his presidency, and the presidency. Most Americans want a president who makes them proud.”

However, the P-G’s editorial board touted what they feel was Trump’s success with the economy, trade, filling Supreme Court seats and energy, which is a key topic in Western Pennsylvania.

The P-G said Trump hasn’t handled the coronavirus “perfectly,” and that he’s not a unifier and that he hasn’t listened well to those around him. But it found him more suitable than Biden, whom the P-G board called “old and frail.” The board wrote, “There is a very real chance he will not make it through the term. Mr. Trump is also too old but seemingly robust.”

A very real chance he will not make it through the term? Is the P-G editorial board now playing doctors as well as journalists?

The board said if something were to happen to either Biden or Trump and they couldn’t finish their term, Vice President Mike Pence was more ready to be president than Kamala Harris.

Dowd’s latest

Check out Maureen Dowd’s latest column in The New York Times: “Sharknado Goes to Washington.” Two quotes in the column stood out to me.

The first from CNN’s Jake Tapper: “Trump has turned fact and decency into a partisan concept. So that journalists who are skeptical of both parties, and Republicans like Mitt Romney and Jeff Flake who are not total sycophants, become antifa to 35 percent of the country, while all the other Republican lawmakers who know better sat back and let it happen.”

The other from historian Walter Isaacson: “What we have lost is the sense that we are one nation, all in this together. Donald Trump is the first president in our history who has sought to divide us rather than unite us. We will heal once he leaves, but the scar will endure.”

Get the facts

Two new pieces out from PolitiFact that you should read: Amy Sherman with “Trump’s Cascade of Falsehoods About Voting by Mail”; and Louis Jacobson with “Why Is 2020 Not Like 2016? Fewer Undecideds, For One.”

Most sobering quote

Dr. Scott Gottlieb in 2017. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

Former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb had some grim news about the coronavirus while appearing on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday. He told moderator Margaret Brennan, “Things are getting worse around the country. December is probably going to be our toughest month.”

Also on “Face the Nation,” CBS’s John Dickerson had this to say about this week’s election: “That’s an extraordinary thing if the president is reelected. And if he does it, it will be the greatest death-defying act he has done. How will he do it? By doing well in the rural areas, by doing well with non-college white voters — this is his base — and by limiting his bleeding among suburban women. He’s been losing those voters since he was elected. He has to make that loss smaller. But if the president wins, it will be an extraordinary political act.”

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Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for Poynter.org. He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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