TV prepares for a chaotic midterm night
By Michael M. Grynbaum
Gearing up to report this year’s midterm election results, U.S. television networks are facing an uncomfortable question: How many viewers will believe them?
Amid rampant distrust in the news media and a rash of candidates who have telegraphed that they may claim election fraud if they lose, news anchors and executives are seeking new ways to tackle the attacks on the democratic process that have infected politics since the last election night broadcast in 2020.
“For entrepreneurs of chaos, making untrue claims about the election system is a route to greater glory,” said John Dickerson, the chief political analyst at CBS News, who will co-anchor the network’s coverage Nov. 8. “Elections and the American experiment exist basically on faith in the system, and if people don’t have any faith in the system, they may decide to take things into their own hands.”
CBS has been televising elections since 1948. But this is the first year that the network has felt obligated to install a dedicated “Democracy Desk” as a cornerstone of its live coverage. Seated a few feet from the co-anchors in the network’s Times Square studio, election law experts and correspondents will report on fraud allegations and threats of violence at the polls.
“It’s not traditional,” said Mary Hager, CBS’ executive editor of politics, who has covered election nights for three decades. “But I’m not sure we’ll ever have traditional again.”
Across the industry, networks have deployed dozens of reporters to state capitals around the country, where journalists have spent weeks cultivating relationships with local election officials and learning the minutiae of ballot-counting procedures.
Still, an election night that ends without a clear indication of which party will control the House and Senate — a likely possibility, given the dozens of tight races — could present an extended period of uncertainty, allowing rumors and disinformation to run rampant. And Americans’ trust in the national news media has rarely been lower, with barely one-third of adults in a recent Gallup Poll expressing confidence in it.
“I can’t control what politicians are going to say, if they choose to call an election result into question,” said David Chalian, CNN’s political director. “You’ve got to be clear, when it’s a partial picture, that nothing about that is untoward.”
Two years ago, TV networks prepared for pandemic-related ballot headaches and speculation that President Donald Trump might resist conceding defeat.
But 2022 has presented novel challenges. Allies of Trump — who claimed two years ago, without evidence, that “frankly, we did win this election” — continue to sow doubts about the integrity of the vote-counting process. Republican candidates in some key races still refuse to accept that Trump lost.
Even as Americans consume information from an increasingly kaleidoscopic set of news sources — social media, hyperpartisan blogs, streaming services and family Facebook posts — the big TV networks still play a major role in setting the narrative of an election night, for better and worse.
In 2020, Fox News’ early Arizona call signaled that Joe Biden might emerge victorious (and left Trump enraged). In 2018, TV had a more ignominious evening: After a series of deflating early defeats for Democrats, some anchors predicted that a “blue wave” had fizzled and that Republicans would retain control of the House. It was Fox News again, working off a proprietary data model, that made the correct call that Democrats would take the chamber.
Marc Burstein, the executive in charge of ABC News’ election night coverage, said his team “will be very clear to explain that there could be red or blue mirages. We’re going to be patient.” Carrie Budoff Brown, who runs “Meet the Press” on NBC, said it was “everybody’s responsibility” to prepare audiences for an extended wait.
Executives are optimistic that Americans will tune in — and stick around. Despite steep drops this year in viewership of CNN and MSNBC, the Big Three broadcast networks are planning to preempt their entire prime-time lineups for political coverage Nov. 8.
ABC, CBS and NBC will kick off their traditional election night coverage at 8 p.m. Eastern time and continue into the wee hours. In the past, those networks often shied away from midterm nights, shoehorning in an hour of coverage between police procedurals and the local news. Executives reasoned that, without a presidential race, audiences were less engaged. That changed in 2018 at the height of the Trump presidency, when ABC, CBS and NBC each devoted three prime-time hours to covering the midterms.
On cable, the anchors are preparing for the usual marathon.
“This is our Super Bowl,” said Bret Baier, the chief political anchor at Fox News.
Fox News’ decision desk will again be run by Arnon Mishkin, the outside consultant who spearheaded its controversial Arizona call in 2020. Although Fox’s projection was eventually proved correct, it took several days for other news outlets to concur, and Trump turned his wrath on the network in retaliation. The network later fired a top executive, Chris Stirewalt, who was involved in the decision to announce the call so early; another executive involved in the decision, Bill Sammon, promptly retired.
“What we want to be, always, is right — and first is really nice — but right is what we want to be,” Baier said. “In the wake of 2020, we’re going to be looking at numbers very closely, and there may be times when we wait for more raw vote total than we have in the past.”
“It’ll be a lot smoother than that moment,” he added, referring to when he and his fellow co-anchors were visibly caught by surprise as their colleagues projected a victory for Biden in Arizona.
Fox officials later ascribed the confusion to poor communication among producers.
“I think,” Baier said, “we all learned a lot from that experience.”