Reporters raise their hands to ask questions as President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference in the Rose Garden of the White House, Tuesday, July 14, 2020, in Washington.
( AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Tanzina Vega: How are you going to watch this election unfold? Some of you will listen to the radio, others will watch cable news pundits, and still others will doom scroll through social media. One thing's for certain is that whatever your media consumption will be today, you may want to line up some snacks and be ready for some uncertainty. Margaret Sullivan is a media columnist at the Washington Post. She's got some tips for how journalists and the public should proceed on this big night. Margaret, welcome back to the show. It's so great to have you with us today of all days.
Margaret Sullivan: Thank you so much for having me on Election Day.
Tanzina Vega: We have arrived, the day is here, and according to your new column, Election Day will be the media's D-day. What does that mean?
Margaret Sullivan: I think it's a really important test. What I mean by that is that this is an extremely important make or break day for the news media to do a good job. It's not about what happens, it's about whether the media can do its job properly, which is to-- most of what I'm thinking about is not to magnify untruths, to explain in context, not to parrot things that are wrong. All the things that we have, unfortunately, fallen prey to quite a bit during the Trump administration.
Tanzina Vega: You also talk about having patience. Are you asking journalists to have patience?
Margaret Sullivan: I know it's a big ask. I do think that it may not turn out to be necessary. If there's a landslide of one sort or another, then certainly we're going to know on election night, what has happened. If it's a relatively close race, that could be much more of an issue because in the early moments, in the early hours, even into the next day, it may look like one thing and turn out to be something else entirely, because all the ballots haven't been counted or at least a lot of them haven't been counted in key states, for example, Pennsylvania.
Tanzina Vega: You're cautioning journalists to also be careful about calling races too quickly. What's at stake if they do not heed that warning?
Margaret Sullivan: It lends itself, unfortunately, to a situation in which-- and I don't think we have to be too careful about who's going to do this or not. President Trump has already laid lots of the groundwork for saying that if he's ahead, then he's going to declare victory. If he does that, and if the media parrots that, or if the news media's various decision desks are saying, "It does look like it's headed in this direction or whatever it may be." Then if it turns around the other way, it's going to look like fraud, or it's going to look like an illegitimate outcome, which it may well not be. It may just be a matter of the votes aren't fully in. As you know Tanzina, this is a really unusual election for so many reasons. One of them is that we have way more mail-in ballots than we ever have before and we're certainly expecting much more turnout than there has been in recent years, in recent presidential cycles.
Tanzina Vega: You mentioned the media's decision desks on election night. What are they and how do they work?
Margaret Sullivan: Usually, at the big media organizations, there's a group of people, veteran journalists, or some of them are more on the numbers-crunching side of things, who analyze the races, look at key precincts and eventually make a decision about whether they can say, "Yes, Wisconsin has gone to X person." An interesting one is the one at Fox News, which we all think that Fox News is very pro-Trump and that their coverage is very right-leaning, but they have one of the best and most respected decision desks that is quite separate from the news content. It's a very interesting situation. Will these decision desks take their time and be really sure. I think they need to be extra sure this year.
Tanzina Vega: You yourself have had to make some pretty dicey early calls in presidential races. Tell us about what you learned in that process.
Margaret Sullivan: I've been a journalist for a long time, a couple of decades. The one that sticks out in my mind as it does for many was the 2000 election when George W. Bush versus Al Gore, and it really all came down to Florida. At that time in 2000, our print edition at the Buffalo News where I was the top editor was still extremely important. We had to make a decision, I had to make a decision about what headline to put on the papers that people were going to get at their doorsteps the next morning. As it happened, a consortium of news organizations originally called Florida for Bush. Many of us went with headlines that said for a very early edition, Bush apparent winner. Then within minutes, they reversed that and said Florida was still up for grabs. We ended up sending out a few that said, Bush apparent winner. Then for the rest of our additions, which went to most everybody, it said something like, down to the wire. A lot of papers did much worse on that and went ahead and said that Bush had won, and a few, not as many, but a few even declared Gore the winner. It's a cautionary tale. You never want to have that Dewey defeats Truman moment like one of the Chicago Papers did many years ago.
Tanzina Vega: Back in September, Margaret, you wrote that the media needs to prepare the public for uncertainty. There is a lot of uncertainty, I think that's part of why we're seeing such record turnout in advance today. That uncertainty could still be with us tonight, as these ballots come in. Some news outlets could be at risk of really putting forth the idea that delayed results are an indication that the process is broken in some way.
Margaret Sullivan: That's right. I think actually, I'm a little bit-- It's not like me to be particularly complementary or optimistic about the news media, as you know. I actually think from having watched a lot of network news, a lot of cable news, read a lot of different organizations work, I think that the news media actually has prepared people, people who are paying attention, for the fact that election night might not be the time when they really know the winner. There's another factor here, which is that for a lot of people, a good portion of the public, they're not paying attention in that way. They're going to start paying attention sometime during the evening, paying close attention and say, "I'm going to turn on CNN or whatever it may be and I expect to know the answer and if I don't know the answer, something must be very, very wrong."
While I think it's been pretty good, it's not all on the media, some of it is on citizens and news consumers, whichever you like to call them, to really be discerning, and to be well informed. We see all different degrees of that.
Tanzina Vega: To be able to sit with the uncertainty for a little bit if that's what's being called for, right?
Margaret Sullivan: Yes. That's really hard to do, especially because people have such strong feelings about this election. Everybody, no matter who you support, is ready to say that the other side is going to take us into some end-of-the-world scenario. Emotions are running high, anxiety is running high and as a result, you want the answer. You don't want to sit with that anxious uncertainty, but that may be exactly what we have to do.
Tanzina Vega: As we are heading into the final moments for Americans to be able to cast their ballot here in this country Margaret, how are you going to be following all of this? Are you going to be doing a combination of social media following and maybe TV? Of course, the Takeaway will be part of that, but how are you going to be doing it? Also, how should folks who aren't journalists be following it? What's the best piece of advice for them?
Margaret Sullivan: I think the best thing to do and the thing that I like to do is compare and contrast. Don't just say, "All right, my only news source, even if it's a wonderful one, is going to be X and that's it." I think it's important to look across the different platforms, the different social media platforms, the different broadcast networks, the different print outlets, radio. That doesn't mean you have to make a science out of it, but maybe to pick two or three that have slightly different points of view, and see how they're covering things.
For me, of course, because I write about the news media all the time, I, of course, look at Twitter a lot, I, of course, look at the major print organizations, the major networks. I also make sure that I see what right-leaning or pro-Trump media is doing to so I will definitely be spending some time on Fox News and others that will be telling probably quite a different story than what we're seeing elsewhere.
Tanzina Vega: It'll be a long day for many of us. Margaret Sullivan is a media column at the Washington Post and a frequent guest here on The Takeaway. Margaret, thanks as always.
Margaret Sullivan: You are so welcome. Great to be with you and your listeners, Tanzina.
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