President Trump was going to make a speech from the White House about the 2020 election, a process so unique and unprecedented that, at well past 2 in the morning eastern time, no news organization could predict who was going to be the winner. Before he got on camera, however, Norah O’Donnell had something to impart to her viewers.
“We at CBS News are not projecting in this presidential race. We will not disenfranchise the millions of voters in those battleground states and the hundreds of thousands in Georgia who also have not had their votes counted,” said O’Donnell, speaking during CBS News coverage of the election well after most viewers normally watch her on “CBS Evening News.” Moments later, as Trump spoke, anchors on NBC, MSNBC and CNBC broke into his comments — during which he falsely claimed he had won the election despite millions of votes left uncounted – – and Savannah Guthrie, Brian Williams and Shepard Smith told viewers why the president was making unfounded claims. “We’ve got to dip in here because there have been several statements that are just frankly not true,” Guthrie told NBC viewers. “We are reluctant to step in, but duty bound to point out when he says we did win this election, we’ve already won, that’s not based on the facts at all,” said Williams.
Fox News Channel also warned viewers off Trump’s statements. “This is an extremely flammable situation and the president just threw a match into it,” said Chris Wallace, who moderates “Fox News Sunday,” during overnight coverage.
In the wee, small hours of the morning, the nation’s most popular TV-news organizations grappled with some of the biggest issues of coverage around the 2020 election.
As uncounted votes in Georgia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Michigan and Wisconsin slowed the tabulation process, a bevy of anchors had to steel viewers for the fact that — unlike the event they have witnessed every four years for decades — there would be no neat conclusion by night’s end. “This is like a ten-part Netflix miniseries,” Jake Tapper said on CNN.
The networks were cautious from the get-go. Early on in its broadcast, ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos called upon Nate Silver, the well-regarded statistician behind the popular polling site FiveThirtyEight, and asked him what he had gotten wrong in the 2016 presidential election, when Trump surprised most pundits and prognosticators. CNN’s John King cautioned viewers so many times about vote counts and possible surges from either side it appeared to occasionally frustrate his enthusiastic on-screen partner, Wolf Blitzer. And the night provided a litany of sports metaphors urging voters to realize the game at hand was stuck in early stages. “It’s kind of a jump ball at this moment,” said Guthrie.
Fox News Channel found itself criticized by the White House for making an early call on Arizona that turned out to be accurate, even prescient. The network, which after the 2016 election invested in a new system of monitoring vote returns that takes into account the recent rise in early voting, has gained a reputation for making early but on-target calls. As other news outlets cautioned viewers about Arizona, Fox News defended its call throughout the night,. Arnon Mishkin, director of its Decision Desk, appeared twice on camera to explain the process. “It’s been clear for a while that the former vice president is in the lead in Arizona, and was most likely to win the state. It has been in the category that we call ‘knowable’ but not callable for about an hour. We finally called it right now,” Mishkin said to co-anchors Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum. ” Yes, there are some outstanding votes in Arizona. Most of them are coming from Maricopa, 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. ”
All the networks rehearsed a wide range of non-traditional scenarios, and it was clear many of them had prepared to refute any premature claims of victory from Trump. “We are all voting in the middle of a global pandemic that has already had a tremendous impact on the way people will cast their ballots,” NBC News President Noah Oppenheim told Variety in a recent interview. “On Election Night, we are going to be living in the moment, driven only by the facts.”
And throughout the evening, anchors cautioned viewers they would not be rushed to call victory, or determine where any of the remaining states might finish. Some emphasized the process was normal and the direct result of how the pandemic had affected the nation. On Fox News Channel, both Mishkin and Republican stalwart Karl Rove told viewers that many of the uncounted votes in places Georgia, Michigan and Wisconsin were likely from Biden supporters and would probably have a significant effect on the count in those states.
The networks will have to continue to push forward. Determining the outcome of the race could take at least a day, if not longer. And so, viewers are likely to see their morning shows transformed into election update programs, and to see special reports throughout the day. “The hallmark of this year is uncertainty,” said James Goldston, president of ABC News, in a recent interview. There will be plenty more of it in the hours to come.