Memo to media: Don't blow this

A shot at redemption

A quick pre-election pitch.

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After four years of falling victim to Trump intimidation, the news media have a defining opportunity this week to do the right thing and to reject Republican bullying. It ought to be a simple choice. But nothing over the last four years has proven easy for the press.

For now, top media executives continue to say all the right things about being patient on Election Night and not being browbeat into making claims that are not supported by the voting data:

• "Frankly, the well-being of the country depends on us being cautious, disciplined and unassailably correct" — Noah Oppenheim, president of NBC News

• “We’re preparing the audience that this might not be over in one night." — Susan Zirinsky, the president of CBS News.

• “It may not even mean that it’s a close race. We have to constantly remind the viewer that patience will be needed and this may take some time in critical states, and that doesn’t mean anything is untoward" —Sam Feist, CNN’s Washington bureau chief.

That all sounds reassuring. But will the networks, for instance, have the fortitude to keep Trump off the air Election Night if he moves, without proof, to declare himself the winner?

The concern is that the Beltway press corps does not have a strong record of doing the right thing when faced with White House intimidation. Last spring when Trump addressed the media in the Rose Garden to crow about recent employment numbers, reporters at the last minute were forced to sit shoulder-to-shoulder as the White House blatantly disregarded Center for Disease Control guidelines for social distancing. Trump officials said the packed-in seating arrangement looked "better" on TV.

The smart, safe, and honorable thing to do at the time would've been for reporters to stand up and leave, letting the White House know they weren't going to be used as props in a public relations battle, and they weren't going to put their health at risk in the process. Instead, reporters sat there, took the abuse, and then the White House Correspondents Association, after the fact, put out a statement complaining about the incident.



Meanwhile, social media giant Twitter has clearly been bullied into allowing Trump to remain on the platform, even though he violates Twitter's terms of use on almost a daily basis, by spreading obvious lies and engaging in harassment and intimidation.

For now, the Trump script for chaos clear: He wants media outlets to declare him the winner based on the number of in-person ballots counted on Election Night — in-person, electronic votes that are likely to lean Republican, as compared to early votes which will lean Democratic. Then Republicans will pressure courts to make sure all the mail-in and early ballots aren't properly counted, while Trumps claims premature victory. If mail-in ballots turn the tide away from him, he'll claim fraud.

The election rules have been forever altered this pandemic year, but Trump is hoping most news consumers don't realize that. Leaning into the absurdist idea that presidential winners must be declared on TV by midnight on Election Night — as if some mythical buzzer will sound — and declared regardless of how many ballots remain uncounted, he's hoping viewers are similarly glued to the long-running tradition of networks crowning a winner before bedtime.

This year, all the old rules are gone because America has fundamentally changed the way it votes, opting in staggering numbers to vote early. Because elections are overseen by states, there's a patchwork of laws about when those early votes can be counted. In Pennsylvania, the Republican-run legislature made sure election officials this year were prevented from counting mail-in ballots before Election Day. There’s a GOP push to make the process drag on while the White House tries to get early votes thrown out and Trump raises the specter of fraud.

"We don't want to have Pennsylvania, where you have a political governor, a very partisan guy," he said last week. "We don't want to be in a position where he's allowed, every day, to watch ballots come in. See if we can only find 10,000 more ballots." It's an unprecedented campaign to destroy the faith in American elections.

The Associated Press has positioned itself as perhaps the preeminent outlet in terms of definitively, and accurately, calling election races. This week its Decision Desk expects to call nearly 7,000 contests, from the presidency to state ballot initiatives and legislative races. In 2000, despite enormous pressure to act, the AP on Election Night made the right decision by refusing to call the race for George W. Bush. The AP knew Florida was too close to call.

Today, acknowledging the purposeful confusion Republicans are spreading, AP editors say they'll be publishing "stories explaining how its experts make decisions or why, in tight contests, they are holding back. If necessary, top news executives will speak publicly in interviews about the process."

That's laudable, but this transparency push should have started weeks ago when Trump began lying about the voting process and how ballots are tabulated in the U.S. ("I think it's a terrible thing when ballots can be collected after an election.") NBC's "Nightly News" on Monday night informed viewers, via an on–screen graphic, it was "BREAKING NEWS" that "counting every vote may take days or weeks." That crucial information should have been continually stressed, starting weeks ago.  

Because of extraordinary election circumstances during an extraordinary year, the press will be given a chance this week to redeem itself — to stand up to Trump bullying and to clearly inform citizens in the name of truth telling. The press will also be given the chance to epically fail by caving in and damaging our democracy.

The choice is theirs.

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This week, as the election ends and the press faces enormous responsibility, I keep thinking back to the closing scene from All The President's Men, when Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman) tell hard-nosed Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards) just how sweeping the Watergate cover up is.

Bradlee tells them to keep chasing the story, but with stern instructions:

We're under a lot of pressure, you know, and you put us there. Nothing's riding on this except the, uh, First Amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press and maybe the future of the country. Not that any of that matters, But if you guys f— up again, I'm going to get mad. Good night.

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Patti Smith, "People Have the Power"


Here’s a glorious rendition of Smith’s classic call to arms, complete with a choir of 250 everyday voices.

The power to dream to rule
To wrestle the world from fools
It' s decreed the people rule
It' s decreed the people rule
I believe everything we dream