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TV news coverage is cautious as election night turns into a weeklong epic

Arnon Mishkin, head of the Fox News decision desk, went on camera to explain his early call of Arizona for Joe Biden.
(Fox News)

Patience and caution defined TV news coverage of the 2020 race for the White House as election night now looks like it will be a weeklong miniseries filled with emotional drama.

Once President Trump appeared headed to a better than expected performance in Florida — necessary for his chances of reaching the 270 electoral votes for victory and ending any chance of a blowout victory that some pundits predicted for former Vice President Joe Biden — Tuesday’s coverage turned into a stomach-churning roller coaster ride for viewers on both sides of the political aisle.

The difference in one of the wildest, most unpredictable campaigns in history is coming down to the battleground states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, which all resumed counting millions of mail-in and absentee ballots Wednesday, keeping TV news operations on the air continuously into the day after election night for the first time since 2004.

Punchy anchors and political analysts returned to their desks and touchscreen electoral maps after getting an hour or two of sleep as the story shifted from Trump leading in the battleground states last night to mail-in votes giving the edge to Biden in Wisconsin and Michigan.

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“Are you wearing the same clothes you had on yesterday?” “CBS This Morning” cohost Gayle King asked viewers Wednesday from the network’s election headquarters in Manhattan’s Times Square. “I am. I am.”

Cable news networks remained on the air with wall-to-wall coverage on Wednesday — CNN calls it “Election Overtime” — while at least one broadcast network, NBC, is going back on the air with its election team in prime time on Wednesday.

The possibility of recounts and legal challenges threaten to turn this year’s election into a replay of the disputed 2000 presidential contest that was eventually decided in favor of George W. Bush over Al Gore by the U.S. Supreme Court.

But no one can blame TV news this year for tilting the race as it did in 2000, when networks prematurely called Florida’s electoral votes and the race for Bush, creating the perception he had won.

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TV networks are still haunted by how botched Bush v. Gore election night coverage set in motion the Florida recount crisis. Can it happen again?

The closeness of the 2020 vote and unexpected strength of Trump’s performance in states where polls showed him behind was apparent in exit polls networks study before results come in, according to one TV executive who saw the data but was not authorized to discuss it publicly.

As a result, the news divisions were slow to call the results of states, casting aside any competitive zeal to be first. The first battleground was not called until Fox News awarded Florida to Trump at 11:04 p.m. Eastern. Many states were categorized as “too close to call” or “too early to call.”

At the start of ABC News’ coverage, chief anchor George Stephanopoulos attempted to prepare viewers by telling them the wait for the results should not be taken as a flaw in the voting system, mitigating repeated claims by President Trump that he would only lose if the process was rigged.

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“Counting could take some time this year, and that is OK,” Stephanopoulos said. “Not knowing the outcome tonight does not mean the process is broken. It does not mean the election is unfair. What’s most important is that every citizen who casts a valid vote gets that vote counted, however long it takes.”

CBS News President Susan Zirinsky said the network wanted to be confident in its calls based on its own research, instead of racing to beat the competition and risk an error.

“We have a motto — slow is not a problem,” she said in an interview Wednesday.

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Networks also had to navigate the difference between mail-in voting and early in-person voting — which skewed overwhelmingly Democratic — and election day voting, which delivered the large margin that the Trump campaign depended on. Some states counted those votes as they came in while others such as Pennsylvania did not start counting until Tuesday.

“This is one of those nights because of the different ways people voted — mail-in, in-person early, election day — that there is going to be some distortions,” CNN’s John King said early in his marathon session at the network’s “magic wall,” where the vote was dissected county by county.

Even with the preparation, anchors had to wrap their heads around the notion they could be seeing a replay of 2016 when Trump scored a shocking victory over a heavily favored Hillary Clinton. Network news chiefs said they were ready for every scenario.

“We were prepared for any eventuality, and what we’re dealing with is certainly an option that didn’t surprise us,” said CNN Washington bureau chief Sam Feist.

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Fox News, which teams with the Associated Press and NORC at the University of Chicago on a survey, called the “Fox News Voter Analysis,” of more than 100,000 voters to help determine the outcome of races, was the most aggressive in calling results.

Something resembling fairness and balance on Fox on Wednesday night could mean the difference between millions of Americans accepting the election’s legitimacy. Or not.

The conservative-leaning network’s most controversial move was awarding Arizona and its 11 electoral votes to Biden, a first for a Democrat since 1996, which significantly narrowed Trump’s path to 270. Other networks had yet to call a winner in the state as of Wednesday morning.

The call was heatedly disputed by the Trump campaign, forcing Arnon Mishkin, the head of the Fox News decision desk, to go on camera with an explanation.

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“We’ve made [the call] after basically a half-hour of debating — ‘Is it time yet?’” Mishkin told Fox News anchors Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum. “It has been in the category that we call ‘knowable’ but not callable for about an hour. We finally called it right now. Yes, there are some outstanding votes in Arizona. Most of them are coming from Maricopa [County], where Biden is currently in a very strong position. And many of them are mail-in votes where we know from our ‘Fox News Voter Analysis’ Biden has an advantage.”

Mishkin and other members of his team, number crunchers and analysts usually sequestered behind the scenes, showed up on the Fox News set throughout the overnight hours to explain why some states were not being called despite showing large leads for Trump.

Fox News President and Executive Editor Jay Wallace said the network’s use of Mishkin and his crew gave an added texture to the network’s coverage.

“It’s always something we have in our back pocket,” said Wallace. “We have confidence in Arnon Mishkin. When he comes on, it’s the real deal. We went to the desk at the right time, and it became integral to our coverage through the evening.”

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While Fox News is the favored channel of Trump because of the strong vocal support he is given by its opinion hosts, the network touts its impartial reporting on election nights.

Early voting is shattering records. Turnout may set a record. Campaigns can’t keep up with demand for yard signs. A great awakening has hit voters.

The network veered somewhat from that policy Tuesday as its provocative prime-time star Tucker Carlson appeared several times, offering harsh criticism of the polls and media prognosticators that pointed to a decisive Biden victory.

But while Carlson’s comments seemed jarring coming so early in the night, polling units are likely in for more criticism when the 2020 election postmortems are done.

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“The pollsters did not solve their problems from 2016, and they kept telling you that they had,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
NBC News President Noah Oppenheim agreed the polling process will get a close examination once the 2020 smoke has cleared.

“It’s abundantly clear that there is something fundamentally amiss with the way [we] are measuring political sentiment in this country, and there will be plenty of time to reassess that once we figure out the outcome of this race,” he said.

As anticipated, President Trump appeared at 2:20 a.m., where he prematurely touted wins in states that had not been decided and accused Democrats of trying to steal the election, even though there are still many votes to be counted. He also said he would go to the Supreme Court to stop accepting and counting late-arriving mail-in votes now that election day has passed. “This is a fraud on the American public, this is an embarrassment to our country,” he said.

NBC News anchor Savannah Guthrie and "Meet the Press" moderator Chuck Todd in 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York.
NBC News anchor Savannah Guthrie and “Meet the Press” moderator Chuck Todd in 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York.
(NBC / Virginia Sherwood / NBC News)
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On NBC, anchor Savannah Guthrie broke into the coverage of the speech to note the president’s statements were erroneous and that counts had not been completed in several of the states he mentioned.

“We’re listening to the president speaking at the White House, but we’ve got to dip in here because there have been several statements that are just frankly not true,” Guthrie told viewers. “The president going through some of the states, stating that he has prevailed in those states, naming Georgia, saying they’re winning Georgia — or that they won Georgia, ‘there’s no way they’ll catch us, that they’re winning Pennsylvania, won Michigan.’ The fact of the matter is those states have not come close to counting all of their vote.”

Oppenheim said NBC News anticipated Trump’s remarks and was ready to swing into action.

“I was in dialogue with Savannah while we were listening to it, and we made the decision together that the moment had arrived,” Oppenheim said. “In the control room, we had the director make the necessary audio adjustment, and she made the real time fact check.”

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On Fox News, anchor Chris Wallace was also taken aback by Trump’s remarks.

This is an extremely flammable situation, and the president just threw a match into it,” he said.

CBS News cohost Gayle King said the president’s remarks were the reason store windows were being boarded up in cities where there was concern about civil unrest.

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“He’s already planted the seed that the election has been stolen from him,” she said.

Biden preceded Trump’s remarks and spoke to a drive-in crowd in Wilmington, Del., where he called for patience, expressed confidence and asked for every vote to be counted.

On the morning shows, network anchors and correspondents repeatedly reminded viewers that it is not unusual for states to take weeks to count votes before they certify the results of an election.

Fox News called out the Trump on his remarks as well.

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“Overnight, President Trump did exactly what he promised that he would not do yesterday morning on ‘Fox and Friends’ — he declared victory prematurely with several battleground states still undecided,” said White House correspondent Kristin Fisher.


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