By:
November 7, 2020

Isn’t it ironic?

For the past four years, President Donald Trump has beaten up, verbally abused, assailed and ridiculed the media. He has called them fake news and the enemy of the people. He has tweeted insults, yelled put-downs and tried to discredit them every chance he could. He has used rallies and press conferences to mock and bash them.

As ABC’s Jonathan Karl, the former White House Correspondents’ Association president, said on air Saturday, “(Trump) told people not to believe what they saw with their own eyes. He told people not to believe what they saw in newspapers and on television newscasts.”

And yet as Election Day turned into Election Week and closed the curtains on Trump’s anti-media presidency, the media shined.

Yes, the past five days had the entire country on edge. The country was frustrated watching the results come in at what felt like a sloth’s pace. We kept wondering when it was all going to be over. Tuesday night turned into Wednesday. Wednesday turned into Thursday. Thursday into Friday. Each day, we wondered if this was going to be the day it all ended.

It all seemed like one long day broken up by short naps. Our diets consisted of hot coffee and cold pizza. We wore out our remote controls.

We watched MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki and CNN’s John King work their big boards. We watched NBC’s Chuck Todd break down the outstanding votes. We watched PBS’s Judy Woodruff, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos and CBS’s Norah O’Donnell lead panel discussions.

We saw Gloria Borger argue with Rick Santorum on CNN and Chris Christie argue with Rahm Emanuel on ABC. We watched Fox News’ Chris Wallace bring common sense, wisdom and even-handedness.

We started to see Chris Cuomo, Joy Reid, Wolf Blitzer, Brian Williams, Savannah Guthrie, Bill Hemmer and Gayle King in our sleep. We’d doze off to a map of Georgia on our TVs and wake up to a map of Nevada.

We constantly hit refresh on the homepages of The New York Times and The Washington Post. We constantly checked the Twitter feeds of people such as Maggie Haberman and Nate Silver. We suddenly became experts on counties like Allegheny, Fulton and Maricopa. We learned the difference between mail-in ballots and provisionals.

And while the country seemed stretched to its very limits, practically begging for the networks to just call the race already, especially as Joe Biden looked to be on his way to victory for a couple of days now, the news outlets did the right thing.

They waited.

They reported what they knew when they knew it. They offered possibilities about the future, but no guarantees or assurances that they couldn’t back up with facts and numbers. They said the thing that is often so hard for media outlets to say: “We don’t know.”

In other words, they practiced responsible journalism. It wasn’t easy. It was sometimes messy. But it was right.

As CBS News’ John Dickerson appropriately put it: “The media doesn’t call this race more than the weatherman makes it rain when he says it’s raining outside. We are observing a thing that is happening, we have experts who know how that thing plays out, but we are doing nothing more than observing it.”

Yes, there was a time when some observers grew restless and impatient, worried that a delay in calling the election for Biden was giving life to Trump’s claims that the election was rigged. But the news outlets held fast to their standards, delaying a call until it was absolutely certain that Biden had secured the votes to become president.

There appeared to be no major gaffes — a state projection that had to be walked back, for instance.

Meanwhile, most networks showed outstanding instincts by pulling out of a Trump speech in which the president falsely claimed that he had won the election and would only lose if he was cheated. Anytime he tweeted or put out a statement, they immediately fact-checked him and shot down the claims that the election was rigged.

Throughout the coverage, as commentators discussed what was happening, all outlets deftly walked the fine line of not declaring a victor, acknowledging that Biden appeared to be on his way to winning and, especially, debunking Trump’s groundless allegations of fraud.

Despite all this pressure to call a winner, the networks waited until they were sure, and that finally happened Saturday morning.

So what’s next?

The work continues. Not just for Biden and the country. But for the media.

As Karl said, “I think we have a challenge now as reporters and news organizations to — because (Trump) has effectively eroded the trust in much of this country in what they see in the mainstream media — and I think it’s completely incumbent upon us as we are to rebuild that trust. He had the biggest bully pulpit in the world and he used it for four years to undermine largely what we do.”

But you could make a strong case that the media used their work over the past four days to rebuild that trust.

The media can be proud of its work covering this election, of responsibly covering the end of the presidency of a man who constantly criticized that media for four years.

Isn’t that ironic?

Here’s what else has popped into my head about the media on this historic day:

  • Fox News was the last major news outlet to call the race for Joe Biden. It will be interesting to watch how the network handles this story over the coming days. Clearly, they have responsible journalists who will do their jobs, such as election anchors Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, as well as the aforementioned Chris Wallace, who is top-notch. But let’s see how their primetime hosts such as Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham handle this story going forward. Based on the past week, they have given no indication that they are willing to accept the results of the election and they do seem intent on riling up the Trump base for a fight. Let’s see what they say, and let’s see if owner Rupert Murdoch lets them get away with it.
  • Count me among those who have nothing but praise for MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki and CNN’s John King. Their work on big board maps was incredibly informative and they never lost energy or enthusiasm despite often going over the same numbers again and again for days on end. Someone get those guys a big steak dinner and pillow for a much-deserved Rip Van Winkle-type of sleep.
  • Superb work by the networks to quickly acknowledge the other big story of Biden’s election and that is the history made by Kamala Harris. NBC’s Andrea Mitchell said, “To see the first woman vice president, and the first person of color, the first woman of color …  it is overwhelming in a way to think of the barriers that have been broken. Not only the glass ceiling, but in an era of such racial reckoning in the United States to have a person of color in the vice presidency.”
  • The most powerful moment right after Biden was projected to be the winner was Van Jones’ emotional commentary on CNN. If you haven’t seen his heartfelt and tear-filled response, click here.

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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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