By:
November 9, 2020

For the past six months, the country has been on edge as we led up to the 2020 election. But even now, as the election is essentially over, the country cannot totally exhale.

We have 72 days between now and inauguration day when Joe Biden is expected to be sworn in as the 46th president of the United States. Buckle up because this ride will be bumpy.

There’s no indication that the transition of power will go smoothly over the next two months. President Donald Trump has taken a defiant tone, showing no signs of conceding while ramping up his insistence that the election has been rigged. We expect to see recounts and lawsuits, which are acceptable in our democracy. We also expect to see plenty of baseless rhetoric and unproven conspiracy theories, which are not acceptable.

So what role does the media play in how the next two months will go?

In her latest piece, Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote of Trump: “He was a deeply abnormal president, but we constantly sought to normalize him, treating his deranged tweets like legitimate news and piously forecasting, every time he sounded the least bit calm, that he was becoming ‘presidential.’”

She added, “From the beginning, TV news far too often took his public rallies and speeches as live feeds, letting his misinformation pollute the ecosystem.”

There is a danger of that happening again. Based on how he has reacted so far, Trump seems likely to continue floating his false theories, putting the media in an uncomfortable position.

Up until now, most news outlets have tried to walk a tightrope — reporting on the president’s protestations about the election, while attempting to point out that Trump’s assertions are not rooted in fact or reality.

News broadcasters sound something like this: “The president says the election is rigged. There is no proof that is true.” We’ve heard versions of this on all networks for the past three days.

But is that enough? Doesn’t there come a point when repeating the president’s unproven claims, even while debunking those claims, does damage? Doesn’t putting Trump’s bogus allegations into the ether chip away at the trust in our elections even though there is no reason to doubt the honesty of our elections?

On one hand, Trump is the president. What he says and what he does right now is news, especially if his refusal to participate in a transition of power impacts the nation. On the other hand, just because Trump insists the election is a fraud doesn’t make it so — and it doesn’t make it news. As The Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg told Brian Stelter on CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” “The salience of this administration goes down by the day.”

But it is not going to disintegrate completely.

News outlets have to think long and hard about what truly is news at this point. It looks as if it will be impossible to completely ignore everything the president says about the election. When the media is forced to cover this part of the story, it must keep repeating that his conspiracies are not true. But the media also doesn’t have to cover Trump’s dangerous speech every time he tweets or talks.

Trump has made his allegations known. The media has reported on that. For the media to keep reporting on it every single time Trump repeats it is no longer necessary.

If something changes — if Trump concedes, or Trump offers something more than just wild, off-the-cuff lies — then report it. Otherwise, ignore it and cover real news. Goodness knows there’s plenty of it with coronavirus, the economy and so much more.

Wallace’s strong words

Fox News’ Chris Wallace. (Courtesy: Fox News)

Fox News’ Chris Wallace had a couple of moments over the weekend that need to be pointed out.

First, on Saturday, after Biden was projected the winner of the 2020 election, Wallace commented on Trump’s refusal to accept the results of the election.

“I think it’s going to become increasingly untenable,” Wallace said on the air. “It’s one thing to be pursuing legal challenges. It’s another to have this very heightened rhetoric that we know is the way the president does business. I think it’s going to become increasingly untenable because I think you’re going to start to see a lot of the Republican leaders who are realizing their fortunes and their futures are no longer so directly tied to Donald Trump are going to begin to pull back.”

Wallace also pointed out how “un-normal” Trump’s refusal to accept Biden’s victory is.

Then on his “Fox News Sunday” show, Wallace again brought up the idea that Republicans will have to push back on Trump’s election claims.

“It would seem to me that Republicans on Capitol Hill have a role to play in this,” Wallace said. “A very few of them have said, look, you pursue your legal options, but, you know, damn down the rhetoric, like Mitt Romney, like Pat Toomey.”

Then he said this whopper:  “There are a lot who are just silent. And then there are some — I mentioned Ted Cruz — you know who are like the Japanese soldiers who come out 30 years after the war — out of the jungle — and say, ‘Is the fight still going on?’”

Powerful comments

Here’s how NBC News’ Lester Holt closed his “Nightly News” broadcast on Saturday, the day Biden was projected to win the election:

“The handwriting has been on the wall for days. Today, it was on the screen in bold letters and a check mark and for the first time it could be said out loud: America has decided to go another way. This kind of passion — the deep disappointment of the president’s supporters, the celebratory dances of Joe Biden voters — should be allowed their moment. As a country the campaign whipped us into a frenzy, too often rooted in fear of the other. Today, we let it out. Both sides deserve a collective primal scream over all we’ve been through.

“But tomorrow, just maybe we can leave it on the field, wave away the smoke screens and confront what we know to be real and urgent — a pandemic that is literally killing us and sending too many into financial ruin. If we can reengage unity on anything, let it be in the insistence that our leaders, both incoming and outgoing, put us and our well being first.”

How did the media do?

In case you missed it, I had a special edition of my Poynter Report newsletter on Saturday, applauding how the media handled Election Day turned Election Week. If you missed it, you can check it out here.

The ratings game

CNN was the big winner on what turned out to be the final day of the election. From 3 a.m. Saturday morning until 3 a.m. Sunday morning, CNN was the most-watched cable news network. It drew 4.2 million viewers, which was more than MSNBC (3.01 million) and Fox News (1.72 million). Interesting to note that Fox News was the most-watched network of all on Tuesday’s Election Day, but then CNN mostly took over from there.

Making the call

CNN’s Brian Stelter compiled exactly when the networks made the calls on Saturday to project that Joe Biden would be the next president.

CNN was the first at 11:24:20 a.m. NBC was next at 11:25:15, followed by CBS at 11:25:45, and The Associated Press and ABC at 11:26. Fox News made its call at 11:40 a.m.

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Big ESPN news

(AP Photo/Jenny Kane, FIle)

Connor Schell, the No. 2 in charge at ESPN, will depart by the end of the year. The story was first broken by the New York Post’s Andrew Marchand. ESPN announced just last week that it was laying off 300 employees and not filling 200 other positions. Reports indicate that Schell’s departure was amicable and stemmed from Schell’s desire to pursue other work.

Schell oversees all of ESPN’s content, including “SportsCenter,” “Monday Night Football” and its documentary programming like “30 for 30,” which has produced highly-acclaimed documentaries such as “O.J.: Made in America” and “The Last Dance” series about Michael Jordan. Front Office Sports’ Michael McCarthy wrote, “As EVP of content, Schell directly manages more people than anybody (at ESPN) with the exception of (network president Jimmy) Pitaro.”

Marchand wrote, “Now, he will return to his strength, which is creating content as opposed to managing people.”

Schell is close with The Ringer founder Bill Simmons. There’s no word that they are going to partner up, but just something to keep in mind.

What is sad news?

Alex Trebek at the Daytime Emmy Awards in May 2019. (Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)

The headline above is in the form of a question to honor longtime “Jeopardy” host Alex Trebek, who died Tuesday at the age of 80. The cause of death was not released, but he announced he had pancreatic cancer in March 2019.

“Jeopardy” tapes several weeks in advance of the airing of shows, so Trebek-hosted shows will continue to run through Christmas Day. His last tape of taping was Oct. 29. In announcing Trebek’s death, “Jeopardy” said it is not announcing plans for Trebek’s replacement at this time.

Trebek will end up having hosted more than 8,200 shows. The New York Times’ Julia Jacobs rounded up some of the tributes that came in on Sunday, including those from legendary “Jeopardy” contestant Ken Jennings, musician John Legend, late-night host Jimmy Kimmel and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Media tidbits

  • Want to see how The Washington Post went through the stages of designing its front page for Sunday? Click here.
  • Speaking of front pages, Poynter’s Kristen Hare compiled newspaper front pages from every state in the union, as well as some from around the world.
  • I’ve said it time and time and time again, there isn’t a more informative segment on the news each week these days than when CBS’s “Face the Nation” moderator Margaret Brennan interviews former Food and Drug Administration commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb about the coronavirus. Here’s the transcript from Sunday’s conversation.
  • MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow wasn’t able to be in the studio as Biden overcame Trump to become president. She tweeted Friday evening that she had come in contact with someone who had tested positive for COVID-19. She said she had, so far, tested negative, but was going to self-quarantine until it was safe to return to work. She did appear on MSNBC over the weekend from her home.
  • Because she wasn’t on the air during her normal time slot Saturday night, there was speculation that Fox News had suspended Trump advocate Judge Jeanine Pirro. But a Fox News spokesperson said in a statement: “The network ran election coverage (Saturday) night and Jeanine Pirro will be back next week along with regularly scheduled programming.”
  • Seymour Topping, a former famed New York Times foreign correspondent, has died. He was 98. The New York Times’ Robert D. McFadden has the obit.
  • Saturday was the best traffic day ever in the history of Slate, and Sunday was on pace to be the second-best day ever. The heavy traffic was led by a package called “Goodbye,” in which staffers essentially said good riddance to White House personalities such as Melania Trump, Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, Steven Miller, Mike Pence and so on. The package already had more than 13 million pageviews and was continuing to climb.

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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