OP-ED: Trying to cover chaos, lies and complicated vote counting in a pandemic

David Zurawik
The Baltimore Sun (TNS)
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden speaks at a drive-in election night event as Dr. Jill Biden looks on at the Chase Center in in Wilmington, Delaware, early on November 4, 2020. (Win McNamee/Getty Images/TNS)

Tuesday night didn't exactly go the way the pollsters thought it would with President Donald Trump making a much stronger showing in the early going than predicted. And once the clock hit midnight on the East Coast, things started to really get wild and dangerously contentious in the presidential election and coverage of it.

Vice President Joe Biden made a drive-by appearance at 12:31 a.m. to express confidence that he would win when all the votes were counted. Then Trump tweeted at 12:49: 'We are up BIG, but they are trying to STEAL the Election. We will never let them do it. Votes cannot be cast after the Polls are closed."

Twitter flagged the president's tweet as containing content that is "disputed and might be misleading." But undaunted, Trump appeared at 2:35 a.m. to claim he had won the election and that the late numbers coming in for Biden in Wisconsin, Georgia, Michigan and Pennsylvania were part of a "major fraud on the American people."

Trump vowed to fight. "We're going to the Supreme Court," he said, adding that he wanted "all voting to stop."

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Anchors and analysts responded by using the word "ugly" with regularity to describe the situation in which the nation found itself following Trump's claims of fraud.

The trouble had actually started shortly after 11 p.m. Tuesday with an interesting twist when Fox News called Arizona for Biden and the Trump campaign team demanded it retract the call. At that point, Fox was the only major outlet to make a call in the tight Arizona race.

But instead of retracting the call, at about 12:30 a.m. Wednesday, Fox brought Arnon Mishkin, the veteran director of the channel's decision desk, on air to explain the call he and his staff had made.

"I'm sorry, we're not wrong," Mishkin said.

"You're 100% sure on Arizona?" anchor Bret Baier asked.

Without hesitation, Mishkin said he was. And you had to check the channel number to make sure you were watching the network that has been functioning more as a propaganda machine for Trump than a news outlet the last four years.

Strange turned to dark and ugly when Trump appeared before supporters in the East Room of the White House claiming victory and alleging fraud by the Democrats amid a barrage of disinformation and lies.

His words prompted MSNBC and CNN to cut in on Trump's address to fact check his words and try to hold the president accountable.

"When he says 'we already won this election,' that is not based in fact," MSNBC anchor Brian Williams told viewers.

"It is not accurate to say he won," Jake Tapper said on CNN.

And from CBS anchor Norah O'Donnell: "Well, the president of the United States ... falsely claiming that he won the election and disenfranchising millions of voters whose ballots have not been counted, sadly because of the raging pandemic and the failures of his administration to contain the pandemic."

Adding that there has been a "massive vote by mail operation" and that "those votes have not been counted," O'Donnell told viewers, "And so, we at CBS News ... are not projecting a winner in this presidential race."

All three news outlets handled the outrageous act of a president claiming victory and alleging that his opponent was engaged in trying to defraud the American people about as well as can be done within the bounds of traditional journalistic commentary and discourse.

But how do you counter the damage of such reckless and transgressive behavior from the holder of the highest office in the land? Once the words were out of Trump's mouth, the nation that has been suffering under a pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans and thrown millions out of work, was thrust into a world of even more pain, anxiety and bitter conflict.

If only what we saw on the screen after midnight was only a reality TV show that could be turned off and forgotten as we went about our business the rest of the week in the real world.

— David Zurawik is The Baltimore Sun's media critic.