For US journalism, the past four years has been a long march from both-sides-do-it stenographic reporting to a journalism of context.
This past week, as Donald Trump has amped up the election-stealing rhetoric and gutted the presidential debate format, journalism’s reset has been hurried along.
Yesterday’s presidential debate, with Trump’s truculent reluctance to accept the election result or disavow white supremacists, has all but broken the both-sides school.
Australia is slower to this reset. In the US it’s being hurried along by craft diversity, with the journalism of context school being led by journalists of colour, inspired by the call for a journalism of “moral clarity”.
Over the past week, the election-stealing story has tumbled into the centre of campaign coverage, almost behind the media’s back. Trump has long been going high on the rhetoric of electoral conspiracy, amplified on Fox News. But as Trump went high, the traditional media stayed low.
In 2016, billionaire Trump supporter Peter Thiel famously urged journalists to take Trump seriously, not literally. As the taco meme goes: “Why not both?”
As a story, the threat of election fixing is tricky for journalists: ignore the risk and look stupid (or worse, complicit), or report it and risk normalising the idea.
But last week there was an explosion, whose fuse was lit by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Barton Gellman in The Atlantic. For the first time a mainstream report explained the mechanics of possible election theft, pointing at disrupted voting and the uniquely American politicisation of the electoral process.
Normally, US politics would have shrugged, tossing it on the pile with all the other election hot-takes. But then Trump said the quiet part out loud. Asked whether he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power, he said: “We’re going to have to see what happens … get rid of the ballots and we’ll have a very peaceful — there won’t be a transfer, frankly. There will be a continuation.”
In crisis, the US media looked to each other for judgements of newsworthiness. This time, The New York Times was seen to stumble, publishing Trump’s comments deep inside the book. Chief political reporter Peter Baker tweeted the age-old newspaper defence: the story broke late and “print papers are still limited by old factory realities”.
But on television and online, the video went viral, forcing Republicans to push back with carefully-phrased commitments to an orderly transition.
The election-stealing story mashed into the story of Trump’s Supreme Court nomination, particularly once prominent Republican senators stressed that the appointment had to be hurried on as the overwhelmingly conservative court could be asked to determine the election.
The threat of a stolen election has morphed into a debate about media responsibilities on election night itself, throwing one more journalistic norm into flux: how (and when) it performs the fundamental task of calling an election winner.
In Australia, that responsibility has evolved over the past decade by almost unanimous consent to the ABC’s Antony Green. In the US, it’s more diffuse, shared across the Associated Press through the broadcast networks, including cable-like CNN and Murdoch’s Fox. Competitive tension between the US networks lends an imperative to be the first to call, both at a state and at a national level. (It was this tension that began the Florida-based confusion in the 2000 election.)
With a COVID-driven shift to vote by mail, results may not be known in some key states until days or weeks after election night. Worse, Trump could lead on the night, before having his lead overtaken by postal ballots. In Australia, that’s nothing new. But Americans have been trained by practice to expect the instant gratification of election night declarations.
The Associated Press has already alerted the networks that they should not expect an immediate result. Electoral officials are considering withholding partial counts. The networks are being encouraged to stress the tentative nature of any figures.
Caught in this uncertainty, journalists find themselves forced to choose between a fair election and the comfort of both sides.