Would TV News Outlets Really Let Trump Declare Premature Victory?
The pressure is on for news outlets to avoid giving air to the president’s fact-free election night declarations, but as one exec asks, “How does one not cover it?”
President Donald Trump is reportedly relying on chaos and confusion to put him over the top on Tuesday, presenting a possibly insurmountable challenge to the major broadcast and cable networks seeking to impose clarity and impart legitimate information as the vote counts stream in from the battleground states.
Of the many Election Night contingencies that U.S. media outlets have been war-gaming in recent days—which even include civil insurrection and violence—perhaps the trickiest is how to deal with the possibility that Trump will try to deliver a premature victory speech that he hopes the major broadcast and cable networks will carry live and unfiltered.
“We won’t take those comments if he makes them,” MSNBC and Weekend Today host Willie Geist, who’ll be co-anchoring election-night coverage on NBC’s Peacock streaming service, declared during Monday’s installment of Morning Joe. “This is going to be the [Trump campaign] strategy and everyone’s antennae should be up—flood the streets with sewage, flood the streets with a declaration of victory at 10 o’clock tomorrow night when you have not won.”
Joe Scarborough, who’ll join Geist on Peacock Tuesday night along with his Morning Joe co-host and wife Mika Brzezinski, vowed: “We will be there to say, ‘Don’t take the feed!’”
In their promise to resist the former reality star’s alleged scheme, Geist and Scarborough are very likely outliers; it’s debatable whether they can even make good on their pledge.
It was unclear Monday if television outlets in general will accommodate Trump’s attempt to revive his 2016 campaign playbook in which he received hundreds of hours of free airtime that allowed him to frame and frequently twist reality to his own political advantage.
“I’m sure we will take the president live,” albeit with plenty of caveats, a television news executive told The Daily Beast (speaking on condition of not being further identified), while an exec at a different outlet demanded: “How does one not cover it?”
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, ABC News chief anchor George Stephanopoulos said: “I don't think we can censor one candidate, but we have to make sure we can fact-check and put statements in context and make sure people understand that this isn't the final word necessarily, and this is just going to have to be our job on Tuesday, if that comes to pass.”
NBC News President Noah Oppenheim told THR: “We are prepared to aggressively fact-check any effort by anyone to mischaracterize the status of the race or the results of the race prematurely.”
A CBS News spokesperson, meanwhile, told The Daily Beast that Trump’s claims will have zero impact on the network’s factual conclusions: “We will report a candidate’s claims, however, we will only make projections based on our Decision Desk’s data and statistical models.”
For the past two-and-a-half months, the National Task Force on Election Crises—a newly formed media watchdog organization—has been lobbying TV outlets to, among other measures, “share publicly your plans to cover any politician who declares victory prior to your ability to make an accurate, evidence-based projection,” according the group’s Sept. 17 press release.
On Oct. 23, former Orlando Sentinel reporter Jon Steinman—who in 2000 covered the notorious Florida ballot recount in which George W. Bush narrowly beat Al Gore and won the presidency with the help of the Republican-majority Supreme Court—was among the task force members who briefed more than 100 ABC News staffers concerning avoidable Election Night pitfalls. ABC’s news division was the only media outlet among half a dozen that accepted the task force’s offer of Zoom briefing.
“I think there are a number of things they have to do,” Steinman, who also works with the nonprofit ProtectDemocracy.org, told The Daily Beast. “They have to make sure that all the panelists who are on their election-night shows are fully versed on how democracy works, how votes are canvassed and counted and certified, and that they don’t have Molotov cocktail-throwing pundits who try to use volume to game the outcome, because that’s dangerous for our democracy.”
(Speaking of which, Trump acolytes Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham are expected to join Fox News’ Election Night coverage helmed by the right-leaning network’s straight-news anchors Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum. On the other hand, Fox News’ Decision Desk, led by Arnon Mishkin, is widely respected in the business for its meticulous and nonpartisan accuracy.)
To cope with a premature Trump victory declaration, meanwhile, Steinman suggested that TV outlets consider airing it on tape-delay.
“Just like they do with Saturday Night Live, it’s OK to put everything on tape-delay, because you don’t want to set any fires,” Steinman said. “Why not put the president on a tape-delay and pull it down if he says something that is lighting a fuse under our democracy? There is no reason why they shouldn’t do that, and I think they are considering doing that very thing.”
Steinman said he was referring specifically to ABC News, although a spokesperson for the network simply said: “We’ll report what the candidates say in the proper context and be transparent with our audience about what we know and what we don’t.”
In the meantime, Trump is pursuing an Election Night strategy, according to Axios White House correspondent Jonathan Swan, that involves not only specious claims of voter fraud and swarms of campaign lawyers dispatched to swing states to invalidate mail-in ballots, but also—if early but inconclusive tallies show him running ahead of Joe Biden in key states—jumping the gun with a bogus claim of victory.
“Trump has privately talked through this scenario in some detail in the last few weeks, describing plans to walk up to a podium on election night and declare he has won,” the extremely well-sourced Swan wrote on Sunday—prompting a typically implausible denial from the president (“That was a false report”) as well as expressions on social media of ridicule and alarm.
“I think there’s a very tough decision for the networks about taking Trump live on election night, particularly if you know he is going to come out and lie and sow dangerous disinformation about the election,” MSNBC’s Chris Hayes wrote on Twitter.
NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen chimed in: “Most important moment yet for the fading maxim, ‘what the president says is news.’ Once dominant, now corroded beyond repair by its abuser. Still capable of doing damage.”
Trump’s premature victory declaration, meanwhile, “would be like Coach [Doug] Pederson telling confidants that he will declare victory at halftime tonight if the @Eagles are ‘ahead’ over the Cowboys,” CNN anchor Jake Tapper tweeted. “That’s not how it works and it’s not up to him.”
During a Biden rally Monday night in Miami, meanwhile, Trump’s bête noire Barack Obama mocked his White House predecessor: “The president’s declared that he’s basically planned to announce victory no matter what the numbers are. But you know what? If we beat him soundly, he won’t be able to do it.”
A prominent network journalist, meanwhile, predicted to The Daily Beast that Trump might not follow through on his victory speech plans, especially if the numbers look bleak.
“He hasn’t been through a losing presidential election. He doesn’t know how he’s going to feel,” this person said. “Even if you judge it by the narrow model of ego, PR, and what’s possibly winnable, he doesn’t know if he’s going to look at it and think, ‘It’ll be embarrassing and look like sour grapes for me to make this long a deal of something that’s a clear loser, especially if Mitch McConnell and others down the line say you do what you want and we’re going to reject you right afterward.’
“The guy knows his way around a story. He may determine that lengthening a bad sore-loser story is not how he wants to play it. And he may go right on to mass pardons or refusing to schedule a meeting with the new president.”