The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The media’s eagerness to discount the ‘blue wave’ feeds a dangerous problem

President Trump on Nov. 7 called the 2018 midterm elections an "incredible day" for the Republican Party. (Video: Reuters)

Democratic strategist James Carville, on MSNBC, was among the first to make the proclamation last Tuesday evening: “It’s not going to be a wave election.”

CNN’s Jake Tapper echoed that view a little later, as did many others: “When you look at what’s going on here tonight, this is not a blue wave.”

On Wednesday, President Trump, in a combative East Room news conference, crowed about the results, hyperbolically calling the 2018 midterm elections “very close to complete victory” for Republicans — not only in Congress but in statewide races around the country, including the governorships of Florida and Georgia.

Nearly a week later, as votes continue to be counted — and sometimes recounted — the president is pining for the way things looked on election night.

Tweeting (baselessly) Monday morning about widespread election fraud, Trump demanded the clock be turned back to that happier moment last week: “Must go with election night!”

The media, for its part, has been scuttling backward for days like just-released sand crabs on the beach.

On Tuesday night, CNN will host a three-hour special program with a telling name: “Election Night in America Continued.”

On a stage Friday night in Manhattan, forecasting that Democrats would ultimately gain 37 House seats (not 29, as some early results had it), the data-oriented journalist Nate Silver said what happened certainly looked like a wave to him.

Silver has been in a dust-up with New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, who wrote a column last week titled “The Midterm Results Are a Warning to the Democrats.”

Silver said he was “enjoying thinking about Bret Stephens knowing deep down how dumb his hot take was and cringing a little bit every time Dems win an additional House seat.”

Stephens said he stood by his assessment and called Silver “a Twitter troll.”

Gloating and name-calling aside, there’s a troubling issue here.

The news media did rush to judgment on Tuesday night.

That’s understandable, maybe inevitable, in our sped-up news cycle where we want answers, and we want them now.

“TV networks want to send their viewers to bed with answers, journalists need definitive copy for the Wednesday morning edition and op-ed writers must deliver their scheduled smart takes,” wrote political researcher Dave Atkins in the Washington Monthly.

That creates a perception problem: “The result is that election night coverage is considered the default version of events, and ballots counted in the days and weeks afterward an afterthought or exciting aberration.”

That’s simply wrong, of course. Every vote should matter, even if it takes a while to count it.

But in today’s bad-faith political environment, a perception problem quickly turns into something much worse: a disease that eats away at citizens’ belief in electoral integrity.

Tom Pepinsky of Cornell University, an expert on authoritarian politics, wrote with alarm Monday about what he saw happening — and what the president is encouraging with his rhetoric about ballots being “massively infected.”

“In a month of harrowing news, this development is still almost incalculably bad for American democracy,” Pepinsky said. “I now assume that a substantial minority of Americans believe that the results of the elections in Florida, Georgia, Arizona, and California are democratically illegitimate unless the Republican candidate wins.”

And, he warned, “when electoral procedures lose popular legitimacy, it is nearly impossible to get that legitimacy back.”

That’s certainly not the direct fault of the news media’s post-election performance.

After all, every citizen — including Trump — should be able to understand and accept that votes aren’t counted until they’re counted, and in extremely close calls, recounts are necessary. (Remember 2000?)

But by giving in to the impulse to analyze immediately, journalists and pundits feed the notion that the election should be over on election night.

Hard as it is to do — or even consider — in our crazily speeded-up news environment, there’s only one lesson for the media from the past week:

Slow the hell down.

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