The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Election Day will be the media’s D-Day. The skill we need most is the one we’ve never mastered.

Voters in Durham, N.C., wait in line to cast their ballots on the first day of the state’s in-person early voting. (Jonathan Drake/Reuters)

Almost two months before the 2016 presidential election, Dave Wasserman, an editor at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, wrote a prescient piece.

The headline? “How Trump Could Win the White House While Losing the Popular Vote.”

Of course, Wasserman wasn’t alone in foreseeing what eventually came to pass. But he was in a minority. Most journalists and numbers-crunchers assumed that Hillary Clinton was an exceedingly good bet to make history as the first female president. Given his proven powers to anticipate the future, it’s instructive to note what Wasserman is worried about now, in an even more consequential moment.

“The political version of hell is scheduled for next Wednesday,” he predicted, “when Dems are freaking out (and GOPers rejoicing) over vote totals that show Trump with large leads in Upper Midwestern states — but it’s a mirage because millions of mail ballots have yet to be counted.”

The “mirage” could turn into a constitutional crisis if President Trump falsely challenges the lagging mail ballots as illegitimate — he’s laid all the groundwork for just that — and provokes mayhem within his base. (Mailed votes may be of greater benefit to his challenger, Joe Biden, because more Democrats were among those requesting the ballots.)

At that point, it could become not just a political version of hell but an almost literal one.

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Note, too, that Wasserman is talking about Wednesday — not about Tuesday night, when a polarized nation of Americans, who may not have been paying all that much attention to the details of the presidential election, finally tunes in to find out the definitive answer to the big question.

But any answer that arises on Tuesday night — or maybe far beyond — could be misleading, incomplete or just plain unavailable.

“The public has been conditioned to expect a winner within hours of the polls closing, but the numbers collected on election night are not necessarily decisive,” wrote veteran news executive Vivian Schiller in Columbia Journalism Review. She and Garrett Graff, the former editor of Politico Magazine, offer 10 recommendations for journalists, based on discussions at the Aspen Institute, where they both now work.

At least one of their pieces of advice seems close to impossible for the mainstream media, as we’ve come to know and love it, to ever achieve: “Don’t parrot premature claims of victory.”

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.

“This is a watershed moment for American journalism,” Alan Miller, founder of the News Literacy Project, recently wrote. “The stakes for democracy are sky-high.”

Network anchors, both broadcast and cable, will carry a particularly key responsibility. As Miller, a Pulitzer-winning former investigative reporter with the Los Angeles Times, puts it: “They need to provide contextual reporting and analysis, explaining that delay does not necessarily signal dysfunction and careful counting does not automatically suggest corruption.”

Just as important, though, will be those who run the network and wire service “decision desks,” which determine whether to “call” a particular state as having been won by one candidate or the other. Fox News — somewhat surprisingly, given its longtime conservative and now extremely pro-Trump bent — has one of the most trustworthy of these. And in this moment, the pressures will be great on Fox News’s in-house deciders.

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One of the trickiest tests is that journalists — especially political reporters — have been immersed in this subject for months, even years. They understand very well that the extraordinary number of mail-in ballots brings a particular challenge; in some states, election officials can’t start counting them until Election Day. Journalists have also been keeping track of the various court decisions, including ones in swing states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, that could have profound effects on which ballots are counted and when.

But most Americans, even if they care deeply about the election’s outcome, probably haven’t followed those ins and outs. As in the 2000 race between George W. Bush and Al Gore, they just want to know who won.

Paradoxically, it’s that long-fought 2000 aftermath, and the 2016 outcome that stunned so many, that gives me some optimism about how journalists will handle this. (At least those who work for the reality-based press; I hold out no such hope for Fox News’s Sean Hannity and others of his Trump-cheering ilk.)

Plenty of journalists — and I include myself — remember all too well what it’s like to be wrong.

More recently, the cable-news crowd, in particular, should recall the confident declarations of “no blue wave” in the early coverage of the House of Representatives midterm elections in 2018. Wrong again.

Scarred by those misjudgments, journalists and news organizations may be feeling particularly cautious. I sure hope so.

We have our failings, as the past few years clearly testify. But not many of us want to go down in history as a cause, however minor, of American democracy unraveling.

Decades ago, CBS anchor Dan Rather would utter the word “courage” as he wrapped up his evening newscast. As Tuesday approaches, I’ll urge a different virtue, both for those who transmit the news and those who consume it:


Correction: A previous version of this story said the News Literacy Project was based in Bethesda, Md. It is now based in D.C.

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