By:
November 5, 2020

This year’s Florida, Florida, Florida?

It’s going to be Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania.

Or maybe Arizona, Arizona, Arizona.

Or Georgia, Georgia, Georgia.

Welcome to Election Day, Day 2. Or is it Day 3? Whatever — it feels like one long surreal day and that day continues.

Election Day was Tuesday. Americans have been early voting for weeks. And we still don’t know who the president is. Which is fine. That means every vote is being counted — a point that has appropriately been repeated over and over again by responsible television networks.

This long count makes for plenty of drama, but it also makes for some excellent TV coverage. Throw out Fox News’ Sean Hannity and his pots-and-pans banging and his reckless calls for Americans to be outraged that — the horror! — legitimate ballots are being counted. The rest of the TV coverage has been outstanding.

Drama was ratcheted up Wednesday night when President Donald Trump seemed to be rallying in Arizona, while Joe Biden was coming in strong in Pennsylvania and Georgia.

Of course, all this could end up in court as Trump has filed lawsuits seemingly everywhere.

But until then, it has been fascinating to watch the working of maps by superman Steve Kornacki at MSNBC and CNN’s John King and NBC’s Chuck Todd and Fox News’ Bill Hemmer. It has been entertaining to watch panels on CNN led by Anderson Cooper and Jake Tapper; and MSNBC with Rachel Maddow; and NBC with Lester Holt and Savannah Guthrie; and Norah O’Donnell on CBS and George Stephanopoulos on ABC; and, really, all the networks.

What has been so impressive is the coverage hasn’t overreacted to any numbers or speculated too much about anything that was unknown. Yes, there has been contextualization of numbers, and projections to where votes were coming from. But all the networks and those who work on them have been especially careful to not out-and-out project winners any place where the outcome is still very much up in the air. Admirably, they didn’t mind taking a “we don’t know” attitude at times.

Except for one controversy …

Fox News vs. the White House

President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

As of now, Arizona is still very much a toss-up, yet it was all the way back on Tuesday night when both Fox News and The Associated Press called Arizona for Joe Biden. The Fox News call apparently infuriated Trump.

The New York Times’ Annie Karni and Maggie Haberman reported that there was optimism in the White House Tuesday night until Fox News made the Arizona projection. Karni and Haberman wrote, “Mr. Trump and his advisers erupted at the news. If it was true that Arizona was lost, it would call into doubt on any claim of victory the president might be able to make.”

Turns out, it’s possible that Fox News’ call might have been premature, although it should be noted that Fox News stood by its call throughout the day on Wednesday, even as the White House and others continued to push back against that projection. (Those others included some who gathered at the Arizona State Capitol and chanted “Shame on Fox.”)

The Times reported that the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner was in touch with Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch.

Vanity Fair’s Gabriel Sherman wrote, “A civil war is raging between Fox News and Donald Trump over Fox’s controversial decision to be the first media outlet to call Arizona for Joe Biden.” Sherman said Trump himself phoned Murdoch and demanded a retraction and that Murdoch refused. Sherman also wrote, “Trump and Murdoch have been at odds for months over election coverage. In September, I reported that Trump complained to Murdoch about Fox’s polling. Murdoch has been telling associates for months that Trump would lose the election.”

Other thoughts while watching election coverage:

  • On CNN, have commentators Rick Santorum and Gloria Borger ever finished a sentence without the other interrupting?
  • ABC analysts Chris Christie and Rahm Emanuel somehow are simultaneously annoying and captivating. And that, somehow, makes for great TV. They were more subdued Wednesday night, and in that case, they came off as really smart and really thoughtful when discussing what the country might look like with Biden as president.
  • It looks as if there is going to be a big legal fight in Pennsylvania if Biden wins the state and wins the election. Or at least the White House would like you to believe it’s going to be a big fight worth watching. Yes, networks need to pay attention and put their best legal people on it. But they also need to be careful to not give the story more oxygen than it deserves, especially if it appears that the lawsuits aren’t going to go anywhere or are meant to simply rile up Trump’s base than actually overturn a possible Biden victory.
  • When it comes to legal analysts, ABC has a really good one in Dan Abrams. Asked Wednesday if Trump’s lawsuits could make a difference, Abrams said, “Probably not.” Abrams is a go-to analyst on legal affairs. And when it comes to the Supreme Court? ABC’s Kate Shaw is top-notch.
  • Fox News’ election coverage is really good when Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum are hosting and when Chris Wallace is adding his perspective. But when it’s the primetime crew of Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham? Well, not so much, especially as it appears Trump’s reelection chances are in trouble. And don’t even get me started on Fox Business’ Lou Dobbs.
  • The funniest line of the night came from CBS News’ chief congressional correspondent Nancy Cordes, who talked about the Democrats adding seats to the Senate, but probably not enough to take control. “It’s kind of like getting a bike for your birthday,” Cordes said. “It’s really nice unless you thought you were getting a car.”

Running on fumes … and Diet Coke

NBC News’ Chuck Todd on the air Tuesday night. (Courtesy: NBC News)

Do these folks ever sleep? That’s the question we all had as we tuned into network coverage of this Election Day Continued.

Many saw anchors such as NBC’s Lester Holt and ABC’s George Stephanopoulos when they shut off their TVs late Tuesday night and then saw them again when they turned on their TVs Wednesday morning.

Consider this exchange on Fox News when Dana Perino asked Bill Hemmer if he got any sleep.

Hemmer said, “Forty-five minutes. What about you?”

Perino said, “I doubled that. … But I have to tell you, that hour-and-a-half sleep that I had was like nothing I think —  I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a deep sleep like that.”

Hemmer said, “We’re running on fumes. The thing about our industry, Dana, and you know it very well, when there is information, when there is data, when the story is changing, you can run on adrenaline for a long time. It’s those periods where you hit the walls and nothing is new and you start to think ‘Hmm, what’s next?’ And that’s when you feel it.”

But all on-air personalities on all networks seemed to be going strong, even in the middle of the night, even after 16 or 17 hours of being on the air. Holt told me last week that he was bringing an extra suit, and by Wednesday morning, he had changed into that suit.

Steve Kornacki, MSNBC’s map guy, had been up for more than 24 hours, according to The Washington Post’s Jeremy Barr. Kornacki even posted a video on Twitter to thank everyone for their kind words. Barr also reported that CNN map guru John King left the studio at 4 a.m. Wednesday morning, slept for about two hours and then was back on the air by 11 a.m. As I mentioned above, Hemmer slept for 45 minutes, as did NBC’s Chuck Todd.

How do they do it? Sounds like lots of caffeine is involved. Kornacki told GQ’s Gabriella Paiella before the coverage that he’s all about the Diet Cokes.

“Way too many and too many to count,” Kornacki told Paiella. “On a normal day, I’ll have a couple. But on election night, I just keep it nearby and I’m just kind of regularly using it. These days (people) all tell you, ‘Oh, do you know what’s in that?’ And I say, ‘Well, no I don’t.’”

Holt’s powerful opening remarks

NBC News’ Lester Holt. (Courtesy: NBC News)

Here’s what anchor Lester Holt had to say on Wednesday’s “NBC Nightly News”:

“Remember that deep breath moment I spoke of on election eve? Maybe you can begin to let it out. No, this isn’t over yet. We don’t know who the winner is, and there may be plenty of twists and turns ahead. But we voted like we have rarely voted before. We defied predictions of mass chaos. The votes are being counted, not as fast as we want, but democracy is working. And we are proving once again that it is our voices that count. We are not statistical models. We are Americans. As we wait to hear who our next president will be, remember this: Bitterness and disappointment are not new to elections. We all know that losing is the worst. But our fight should be for a more perfect union, and not against each other.”

A divided democracy

We live in a divided country. Even Tuesday we could tell that the winner of this election was going to win by a razor-thin margin and the days, weeks, months and years ahead are not going to be easy with such division and polarization.

To be clear, a divided country is nothing new, as presidential historian Jon Meacham explained on Wednesday’s “Today” show on NBC.

“We’ve always been divided,” Meacham said. “We were divided between patriot and tory, and north and south, and agrarian and industrial, isolationist and interventionist. Division is part of the oxygen of democracy. If we all agreed on everything, it wouldn’t be a democracy.”

But the division now seems deeper than ever.

“The difference is, and it’s a deeply troubling one, is that many people have set aside, it seems, their capacity to change their minds if circumstance suggests they should,” Meacham said. “And we all do this in our own lives. We all live lives, hopefully, where we learn and grow and change. Politically, interestingly, we tend to seem to have suspended that capacity. And it’s our team, right or wrong, come hell or high water. And hell and high water may be coming. My own view is that we should be calm, we should follow the law. Elections don’t end on the night that … when people want to go off the air and go to bed. This is not unusual in that sense. So let’s just follow the evidence of our eyes and use common sense.”

Meacham said that in the coming days, a lot of what happens will depend on how the president’s supporters react to the way the president is going to behave.

“You can’t be for democracy for people you agree with and against it if you disagree,” Meacham said. “But there is a rule of law in the country. There is a process that has served us pretty well for two and a half centuries. And I think that a lot of folks need to use their own conscience here. They need to use their own heart and mind as they watch what’s going to be a close, close election.”

“Today” show co-host Savannah Guthrie added that every American should take a moment to at least think about those who voted for the other candidate.

“Democracies don’t work without empathy,” Meacham said. “If we can’t see each other as neighbors instead of adversaries, we’re not going to make it.”

The ratings game

When it came to election coverage, viewers opted for comfort food. What does that mean? According to Nielsen, most viewers opted to watch Tuesday night’s coverage on cable network news as opposed to the networks. Fox News led all networks during primetime (8 to 11 p.m. Eastern) with an average of 13.63 million viewers. It was followed by CNN (9.08 million) and MSNBC (7.31 million). The three cable news leaders were followed by the regular networks: ABC (6 million), NBC (5.6 million) and CBS (4.3 million).

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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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