Indecision 2020 — TV networks lose their nerve

Bowing to a bully?

An Election Week pitch.

If you’ve been enjoying PRESS RUN since its launch in February, or have just recently become a reader, please consider subscribing for $6 a month. This newsletter is only possible because of the support of readers like you who are backing a new kind of independent journalism.

Stay healthy.

Be kind.

Subscribe to PRESS RUN


For a news industry traditionally obsessed with being first to land a big story, it's disorienting to watch TV networks look like they don't want to be the one to call the 2020 presidential election winner. Stuck in neutral since Friday morning ("Biden on the verge of winning"), when it appeared it would be just a matter of minutes or hours before one of the major news outlets' Decision Desks declared that Trump had no mathematical path to victory and would announce Joe Biden the winner, the race has remained stuck in an animated state of suspension.

Not because the contest has become a nail biting, back-and-forth affair with wild swings in tallies, and that the winner truly remains in doubt. It's not, and the coverage reflects that as analysts go over the votes, the math, the projections and essentially tell voters that Trump can't win. The race is stuck in neutral because nobody will do the obvious and declare Biden the winner.

Are the networks bowing to Trump bullying, as he and his supporters fill the indecision vacuum with outrageous, fitful claims of the election being rigged? His television appearance from the White House this week where Trump lied nonstop about the U.S election process was a truly dangerous low point for his presidency, as his supporters feed off his lies and take to streets screaming about the election being "stolen."

After four years, are major news organizations still tip toeing around Trump in hopes of not becoming the target of his wrath? It sure feels that way.

Support PRESS RUN

Support PRESS RUN

The Trump campaign went ballistic when Fox News on Election Night called Arizona for Biden, waging an ugly smear campaign against the network. Fox has stood by the call and four days later, Biden has a lead of nearly 30,000 votes. Yet other networks still won't call it for Biden.

In Nevada where virtually all the counting is done, Biden leads by nearly two percentage points. That's an advantage far larger than what Decision Desks usually need to make a pronouncement, when so few votes remain uncounted. If that race had the exact same vote count but were a Nevada contest for the U.S. Senate, instead of a state race that could seal Trump's defeat, that election call likely would've been made 24 hours ago.

Meanwhile, for Fox News to call Arizona early, to correctly stand by it, and today refuse to call Nevada makes no sense. If Fox were to call Nevada for Biden, they'd have to announce him the winner, with 270 electoral votes. At the same time, what does Fox News know about Arizona that the other networks don't, as they refuse to award the state to Biden?

The process is creating confusion, and real suspicion that the media's bowing down to Trump. Again.

The Associated Press, whose Decision Deck is among the most influential in the country, published a piece explaining the no-call so far in the crucial state of Pennsylvania was "because there are tens of thousands of votes left to count in the contest between President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden." That doesn't make sense because the whole point of the Decision Desk, which use mountains of models and data, is to declare winners before all the votes are counted. The AP has called races much closer than today's Pennsylvania contest while "tens of thousands of votes" were left to be counted.

The irony is that prior to Election Night the creeping fear was that the TV networks would be bullied into declaring Trump the winner based on misleading vote tallies that did not reflect the torrent of mail-in votes that came this year, and which take longer to count. As that count has progressed Biden has erased Trump leads in virtually every remaining "too close to call" state, with the Democrat in some states picking up nearly 70 percent of the early vote.

And yet, no call.

The media mantra today about how it’s best to go slow and take their time sounds nice, but Democrats also remember Election Night 2000 when there was a mad dash to announce George W. Bush the winner, which turned out to be premature. Bush used that “winner” tag to his advantage during the contested Florida recount. That’s not to suggest that two wrongs make a right and that the media should rush in again. It does however, raise the question of why does there appear to different standards for Democratic and Republican candidates?

Today, the election coverage continues to walk itself around in a “Groundhog Day” circle, as TV pundits all point to the obvious: Biden's going to win, but claim they’re just waiting for the announcement. All the while, ironic "BREAKING NEWS" announcements fill the TV screens.

It's a final absurdist ending to Trump's absurd and radical four years.