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The Fate of American Democracy Is in the Hands of Cable News

God help us all.

Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

The 2020 presidential election could very well be messy, complex, and slow, defined by an unprecedented number of mail-in ballots, legal challenges, and possibly recounts reminiscent of the fiasco in Florida in 2000. And cable news, which millions of people will be watching throughout election night, is pathologically incapable of dealing with messy, complex, and slow stories. The networks are designed for easy answers that feed simple narratives, and they have shown a tendency to be short-circuited by Donald Trump’s chicanery. He will undoubtedly spend Tuesday evening desperately spinning a victory, and how cable networks respond may profoundly impact the result of the election.

Trump is hoping for confusion. Ever since Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death opened a seat on the Supreme Court—filled last week by conservative Amy Coney Barrett—he has telegraphed that he plans on contesting the results of the election all the way to the top of the American legal system. On Sunday, Axios reported that he might even declare victory prematurely if he has an early lead in crucial swing states, in an attempt to claim that legitimate mail-in ballots, which heavily favor Democrats and may be counted after election night, are evidence of widespread voter fraud.

His gambit would have no legal merit. It’s a stunt so shameless that it has already been widely condemned. But it’s a piece of a larger strategy that will test the media: Trump is insisting that the winner of the election be called on election night because he thinks he has a good chance of being ahead in the early going. As campaign senior adviser Jason Miller told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos on Sunday, “If you speak with many smart Democrats, they believe that President Trump will be ahead on election night.… And then they’re going to try to steal it back after the election.”

The president and his allies will undoubtedly try to turn any inch they are given into a mile, whether it’s a significant pro-Trump margin among in-person voters on Tuesday, ambiguity about mail-in ballots, or some unexpected factor. The point of declaring victory prematurely is to pressure the media and the public into accepting an inaccurate and half-formed picture of the actual results. And there is every reason to believe that cable news will fall for it.

Just think about what happened two years ago. As with this year, there was a strong sense that the full picture—which would likely portray a “blue wave” of Democratic victories—would only fully emerge days, if not weeks, after Election Day. And yet, on the day, numerous pundits declared that the Democrats had fallen short of expectations and that the president and his party had withstood their first great electoral test. That, of course, was quickly proven to be bullshit.

“Journalists at this fraught moment carry a heavy burden to do something that is not in their nature: to be patient, to linger with the uncertainty and to explain relentlessly rather than join a rush to judgment,” wrote The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan. To their credit, news organizations down the stretch have informed their readers and viewers that they should not necessarily expect results the night of the election. Whether they can show restraint when it’s called for, however, is another question entirely.

That is particularly true of cable news networks, which typically devote election night to running state-by-state tallies and featuring panels of pundits that have grown so large that they now resemble Viking feasts. There are long periods when very little happens, which is covered up only slightly by their slavish devotion to expensive technology that shows real-time, county-by-county data. Much of that dead air is filled by pundits, who attempt to create a real-time version of the dreaded New York Times needle, divining the political narrative that is appearing in raw form on the magic screens of John King and Steve Kornacki.

Even in normal times, this is a useless exercise. These pundits, usually talking heads affiliated with the campaigns, provide no insight, and in any case much of what they say is stale within 20 minutes. Their job is to spin the results, not to inform the public. In an election as weird as 2020’s, with one candidate presumed to crush in-person votes and the other with a gigantic mail-in advantage, these narrative swings are even less important. What actually matters is covering the facts on the ground, calling out frivolous challenges to legitimate ballots, and resisting the temptation to spin. “By putting their opinion-havers on camera—even if they only validate Trump’s argument implicitly, by treating it as one of two competing ‘strategies’—news networks will be doing him a favor,” wrote Slate’s Ben Mathis-Lilly.

That spin could have a crushing impact, legitimizing a false narrative about Trump boasting an insurmountable lead that is then “stolen” from him, regurgitated by the president’s allies who will be dutifully standing by on TV sets on Tuesday evening. It could create the uncertainty and chaos that Trump is openly angling for, an opportunity to challenge the election all the way to a Supreme Court with a 6–3 conservative supermajority. The president wants to present the results as complicated and unclear, so he can claim victory via undemocratic means.

From a journalistic standpoint, covering elections, even chaotic ones, shouldn’t be particularly complicated. Media organizations employ many people to figure out what is happening on the ground and to report on it accurately; they have teams of people working at decision desks to decide when it’s appropriate to call states for one candidate or another. The results of the election are not a matter of opinion and shouldn’t be treated as such. The 2020 election is unprecedented and strange, and it requires networks to be two things they’ve never been before: disciplined and rigorous. American democracy might depend on it. Yikes.