TV Networks Face a Skeptical Public on Election Night

2016-11-07 21:22:20

 

TV Networks Face a Skeptical Public on Election Night

Fox News’s elections guru will play his cello on Tuesday morning, “to clear my head and get ready to do math.” CNN is staging more than a dozen rehearsals with a 25-person on-air team. George Stephanopoulos of ABC News spent his weekend running drills in a studio, practicing swing-state calls with a former intern standing in for the pollster Nate Silver.

But as television news gears up for 2016’s big finale, an intense public distrust in the media is threatening the networks’ traditional role as election night scorekeeper.

There is a divided electorate, big segments of which are poised to question the veracity of Tuesday’s results. Donald J. Trump has refused to say if he will concede in the event of a projected defeat. And new digital competitors plan to break the usual election-night rules and issue real-time predictions long before polls close.

The era of Tim Russert’s famed whiteboard — when network anchors could serve as the ultimate authority on election results — has faded. And scrutiny on big media organizations on Tuesday, when 70 million people might tune in, is likely to be harsher than ever.

“We’re surrounded by so much false information and aggressive misinformation,” said James Goldston, the president of ABC News, who will oversee coverage from a Times Square studio built for the occasion. “The pain of getting it wrong in this environment would be very long-lasting.”

In interviews, network executives said that credibility was their first concern, and that they hoped to tune out competing chatter and focus on what they can control: getting it right.

“We’re editors, in a way,” said Mr. Stephanopoulos, as he sped up Madison Avenue in a yellow taxi after rehearsing on Sunday. “People are going to be coming to us, but they’re also going to be following this on their phones all day and getting all kinds of information. Part of our job is to sort through that and only give out what we can be sure of, in any given moment.”

To ensure independence, network statisticians are typically quarantined in an undisclosed location; some have their smartphones taken away. And despite the competitive pressures, network executives say they are willing to be patient.

“There’s no question that there’s added scrutiny this year of the entire system,” said Steve Capus, executive editor of CBS News. “If anything, I think that means we’re going to take our time to get it right.”

Still, troublingly for the networks, making correct calls in swing states and the Electoral College count is, in this partisan political climate, no guarantee of praise. Some supporters of Mr. Trump — who has warned of a “rigged” election for months and viciously disparaged journalists — are already sowing doubt about Tuesday’s coverage.

“Prepare for the media to position their exit pollsters in the most Dem-heavy districts they can find,” Bill Mitchell, a pro-Trump radio host with a large following, posted on Twitter on Sunday, adding, “You know they will.” By Monday, his comment had been reposted about 900 times.

The specter of the 2000 election, and the networks’ botched calls of the Florida count, still haunts television newsrooms. But there is little reason to doubt the networks’ calculations, in part because they rely on the same sources of information.

Networks rely on “decision desks,” which often employ dozens of statisticians and pollsters and receive election returns from The Associated Press, which gathers data directly from state and local officials. The desks also subscribe to exit polls from Edison Research, which provide a glimpse of the numbers and are often used to characterize voters’ concerns, demographics and reasons for supporting a candidate.

Each desk uses a proprietary model to project state-by-state winners. Fundamentally, network officials say, the goal is not to mess up. “Running the decision desk is basically like taking a math test,” said Arnon Mishkin, director of Fox News’s decision desk (and the cellist). “If you don’t get a good grade, 300 million people are going to know.”

This is not the first year that network projections may enter the realm of partisanship. In 2012, Mr. Mishkin made a memorable appearance after Karl Rove, the Republican strategist, raised doubts about Fox News calling Ohio for Barack Obama; the anchor Megyn Kelly walked to Mr. Mishkin’s office for a live interview about why he stood by the call.

But some new players in vote counting see the network model — in which decisions are handed down Moses-style by an invisible group of experts — as outmoded. “Saying ‘trust us’ isn’t enough,” said Ben Smith, editor in chief of BuzzFeed News. “You have to demystify it.”

On Tuesday, BuzzFeed will call races in collaboration with Decision Desk HQ, a grass-roots website that uses volunteers to collect voting data independently from The Associated Press and the news networks. The goal, Mr. Smith said, is to put a second set of eyes on an often opaque process, and to offer real-time commentary on why different news outlets may make different calls.

Mr. Smith sees full transparency as the best way to build trust with modern viewers. “I’ve never covered an Election Day where there weren’t intense claims of misbehavior on both sides, and profound wishful thinking about the results on the losing side,” Mr. Smith said. “I think this cycle, everybody expects it to be worse than ever.”

VoteCastr, a Silicon Valley-backed start-up, is taking a more radical approach: publishing projections before polls close.

Using a team of observers in dozens of swing-state precincts, VoteCastr plans to check live turnout data against its own surveys and historical models to generate an hour-by-hour estimate on Election Day of where the vote stands. Their findings will be published by Slate, along with prominent caveats as to what the data say and does not say.

The goal, said Sasha Issenberg, a journalist and a member of the VoteCastr team, is not to project an ultimate winner, but to offer readers an informed snapshot of the race during the hours when, in the absence of official numbers, social media tends to rely on rumors.

Still, speculating on results while Americans are still voting has long been considered a journalistic taboo: in 1964, CBS News was criticized after calling the California Republican primary for Barry Goldwater before polls closed in San Francisco.

“If you just put that data out to the public, it’s kind of like trying to predict the score of a football game after playing 5 minutes,” said John Lapinski, NBC’s director of elections. Sam Feist, CNN’s Washington bureau chief, said his on-air analysts would not discuss any results until voting had closed in a particular state. “This is really simple,” Mr. Feist said. “Exit poll information floating out during the day is usually wrong.”

At least one partisan news outlet is planning a cautious approach. Breitbart News, whose chairman, Stephen Bannon, is a top aide to Mr. Trump, is not conducting its own polls, so “we’ll probably end up waiting for The A.P.,” said Alex Marlow, the editor in chief.

What about all that bashing of the mainstream media?

“We do believe that most of the establishment media has an interest in Hillary Clinton becoming president,” Mr. Marlow said. “But once the polls are closed,” he added, “the polls are closed.”

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