By:
November 6, 2020

MSNBC hardly bothered. They cut away from President Donald Trump’s press conference on Thursday evening just moments after it started.

Just a few minutes in, ABC pulled out while the president continued talking. Seconds later, NBC pulled the plug on the press conference. CBS then soon followed.

I’m not going to repeat exactly what the president said because it would be irresponsible. But the gist: Without evidence, he called the election a fraud. Even normally reserved news anchors responded swiftly and strongly when the networks cut away.

David Muir, “ABC World News Tonight” anchor, sharply pointed out that Trump planned his press conference for 6:30 p.m. Eastern — just as networks were starting to their highly-rated nightly newscasts. (Trump actually started at 6:45 p.m.) He immediately fact-checked the president and said, “And it is a surreal moment that we’re even having this discussion in this country. What America is witnessing right now is the unprecedented early vote in the middle of a historic pandemic in this country. Millions of Americans who wanted to vote safely, who wanted to make sure their vote counted.”

He added, “We’re not witnessing anyone stealing anything tonight. This is democracy and we asked the American people to be patient. They deserve a lot of credit three days into this.”

NBC’s Lester Holt said, “We are watching President Trump speaking live from the White House and we have to interrupt here because the president made a number of false statements including the notion that there has been fraudulent voting. There has been no evidence of that.”

MSNBC’s Brian Williams said, “Here we are again in the unusual position of not only interrupting the president of the United States but correcting the president of the United States. There are no illegal votes that we know of, there has been no Trump victory that we know of.”

But the harshest statement of all came from CNN’s Anderson Cooper, who said, “That’s the president of the United States. Most powerful person in the world. We see him like an obese turtle on his back flailing in the hot sun realizing his time is over. But he just hasn’t accepted it and he wants to take everyone down with him including this country.”

Frankly, the “obese turtle” remark seemed over-the-top and personal, but you could at least understand the frustration and outrage of any who saw the president make the claims that he made.

CNN’s John King called it a “totally vicious attack on American democracy.” and “abandoning common decency.” CNN’s Jake Tapper: “What a sad night for the United States of America to hear their president say that, to falsely accuse people of trying to steal the election, to try to attack democracy in that way with this feast of falsehoods. Lie after lie after lie. Pathetic.”

Even Republican Rick Santorum, the CNN contributor and former Pennsylvania senator, looked stunned by Trump’s comments, calling them “dangerous.”

“No Republican elected official is going to stand behind that statement,” Santorum said. “None of them will.” (Turns out, that wasn’t entirely true.) He added that Trump’s comments were “not factual and was at times incendiary and not something a president of the United States should say.”

Even as Trump was talking, the chyrons on CNN said things such as “Defiant Trump Claims He’s Being Cheated Out of a Victory” and “Without evidence, Trump Says He’s Being Cheated.”

NBC’s Peter Alexander came on to point out Trump’s hypocrisy, such as his complaining about mail-in voting even though he voted by mail himself. Alexander also noted how Trump wants votes to stop being counted even though that would have meant, at that moment, Joe Biden would have won Arizona and Nevada and, thus, the necessary 270 electoral votes to become president. And, oh, Alexander mentioned how Trump touted victories of Republicans in the House and Senate even though they would have been on the same ballots Trump was questioning.

When it was over, CNN fact-checker Daniel Dale summed it up with this remarkable tweet:

“I’ve read or watched all of Trump’s speeches since 2016. This is the most dishonest speech he has ever given.”

Checking the facts

PolitiFact went over Trump’s speech. Here’s what they found.

Wallace shines on Fox News

Kudos to Chris Wallace, who has been Fox News’ MVP during the election coverage. He’s doing what any good journalist should do: calling it as he sees it. As The Daily Beast’s Matt Wilstein noted, Wallace was among the first to push back on Trump’s election night claims that he had won the election. Wallace said, “This is an extremely flammable situation and the president just threw a match into it.” He went on to say that Trump had not won the election and had no right to claim that he did.

Since then, Wallace has consistently said that there is no evidence of voter fraud in this election. He said on the air, “There doesn’t seem to be so far. There seem to be some allegations, but no hard evidence. And there is nothing that rises to the level that it could be enough fraud to switch votes when you’re talking about thousands and thousands of votes between the two candidates.”

Then again …

Fox News primetime hosts, from left to right, Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity. (AP Photo)

Yes, Wallace’s commentary on Fox News was superb. And Fox News’ main election anchors, Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, have done, by and large, a responsible and respectable job.

But much of that can get lost and Fox News’ reputation takes a huge hit because of the things said by their most high-profile personalities: the primetime trio of Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham. Some of the commentary made by those three Thursday night — essentially backing the president’s false claims of fraud — are dangerous and they undermine our democracy. All three have a solid following and influence, and that’s what makes their commentary even more alarming.

Again, like Trump’s comments, even repeating some of the things they said would be to give them unnecessary oxygen. But know this: It’s one thing to raise legitimate concerns about the voting process. It’s another to take baseless claims and make them so incendiary.

Fox News’ call of Arizona

I mentioned this in Wednesday’s newsletter, but Trump and those close to him have been furious at Fox News for calling Arizona for Biden way back on Tuesday night. Trump reportedly called Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch to demand a retraction, but so far, Fox News’ decision desk is standing by its call — even as its own talent (Sean Hannity) criticized it. The Trump campaign sent out an email Thursday night asking Fox News and The Associated Press to retract the projection.

So what about all this? Why did Fox News and AP call Arizona while, as of late Thursday night, the other major news outlets still had not?

My Poynter colleague Rick Edmonds looked into it, so check out his informative story.

Gore weighs in

Al Gore. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart, File)

Good get by NBC to get Al Gore, who was at the center of the controversial 2000 election. Gore doesn’t often talk about the 2000 election but he told Lester Holt, “Well, first of all, this is a completely different election from the one 20 years ago. Joe Biden has multiple pathways to secure his victory. And of course, I’m for him and I’m hoping that will be the case very soon. But the most important principle that I defended 20 years ago, that Joe Biden and many others are defending tonight is, let’s count every legally cast vote and obey the will of the American people.”

About Trump’s comments, Gore said, “I was disappointed in his statement but you know — the election is over with, the campaign is over with. All that remains is to count the votes. I was thinking as the president was speaking in the White House of the advice Mark Twain once gave to a group of young voters. He said, ‘Do right. You’ll gratify some and astonish the rest.’ If Donald Trump does face the situation where the votes are all counted and he turns out to not be successful, I would urge him to do the right thing. And yes it would astonish a lot of people but it would be good for our country.”

He’s never going to stop saying this

NBC’s election coverage shines, especially with smart commentary from former Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill and political analyst Rich Lowry from the conservative National Review.

When asked Thursday night if Trump was ready to “move past” the election, Lowry said, “He’s not moving past this thing, probably, ever. This is the problem with what he said (Thursday evening). Yeah, I like his policies and I’ve defended him from a lot of unfair criticisms, but the core problem with Donald Trump is that he’s never put the imperatives of the institution of the presidency over and above his selfish interests. And it’s just his character and his temperament to just never to admit defeat or that he’s defeated fairly. He’s never going to stop saying this. My sense is a lot of Republicans are troubled by it, maybe even appalled by it.”

However, Lowry added that Republicans might hesitate to come out against Trump as long as he’s still, officially, alive in the race. Lowry also said Trump is not going away and will remain a major player in the party.

One more thought about Trump …

NBC News’ Chuck Todd with this sobering quote: “I still can’t believe an American president wants to question the integrity of our elections, and our election process. The one thing we’ve counted on is American presidents standing up for how we do democracy. And, in fact, we want to help the world do democracy like we do. And …”

He didn’t finish. He didn’t need to.

TV ratings

Fox News was the big winner on Tuesday night’s election coverage, but Wednesday’s day two was won by CNN. The network drew 7.1 million viewers in primetime (8 to 11 p.m. Eastern). It turned out to be the second-most watched day in CNN history. The most was Election Day 2016. Fox News — which aired Carlson, Hannity and Ingraham on Wednesday night — had 6.3 million viewers. MSNBC was third with 4.8 million viewers.

The major networks aired election coverage mostly during the 10 to 11 p.m. Eastern hour. NBC drew 3.74 million, followed by ABC (2.51 million) and CBS (1.97 million).

There was other media news Thursday besides the election …

Sign of the Times

At least one newspaper is having massive success with its online product. That would be The New York Times. In its third-quarter report released this week, the Times announced that, for the first time, the revenue from digital subscriptions was greater than the money brought in from print subscriptions.

That’s because digital subscriptions are going up, while print subscriptions are going down. According to the Times, it now has more than 6 million digital subscribers — 4.7 million for the main news product and the rest for the crossword and cooking apps. That’s an increase of 2 million from a year ago.

The news, however, isn’t all good. As the Times’ Edmund Lee wrote: “But a worrying trend might be this: Digital readers were the only growth business for The Times. Every other unit fell. As online subscription revenue rose 34 percent, to $155.3 million, print subscriptions decreased 3.8 percent to $145.7 million. And advertising sales, once the lifeblood of the newspaper business, dropped 30 percent, to $79.3 million. The pandemic has cut even deeper into ad sales, which were already falling as fewer people read the paper in print and many companies cut their marketing budgets.”

Big cuts at ESPN

(AP Photo/David Kohl, File)

COVID-19’s impact on the media led to some more grim news on Thursday. ESPN is expected to lay off 300 people across its business and it will not fill 200 positions that are currently open. ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro announced the cuts in a companywide memo, which you can read here in Andrew Marchand’s story for the New York Post.

In the statement, Pitaro said, “We are parting ways with many exceptional teammates, all of whom have made important contributions to ESPN. These are not easy decisions, and we will work hard to make their transitions easier.”

Marchand reported that the layoffs will not concentrate on any one department, but will spread across all of ESPN. Marchand reported that on-air personnel “will mostly be spared at the moment … though ESPN has been scrutinizing contracts more fastidiously in recent months, letting some expire.”

An example of that is former morning radio and “NFL Draft” host Trey Wingo is not expected to have his contract renewed, according to Marchand. And another notable name: ESPN.com writer Ivan Maisel announced on Twitter that his contract won’t be renewed after it expires on Jan. 31 of next year.

The New York Times’ Kevin Draper wrote, “Eighty percent of ESPN is owned by Disney. Sometimes its poor financial results can be buoyed by gains at Disney’s theme parks or movie divisions, or vice versa. But the pandemic has devastated nearly all of Disney’s business lines.”

Good sports news

On the same day as ESPN’s tough news, there was some positive sports media news. The Athletic — the ad-free, subscription-based sports website — told employees that pay cuts, which were put in place over the summer and supposed to last through 2020, have been ended immediately. Full salaries are being restored, retroactive to Oct. 16. Staffers making less than $150,000 had their salaries cut by 10%. Those making more than $150,000 were cut more.

Hot type

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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