We are living through a split-screen moment that crystallizes not just the deep divide in the country but the equally deep distrust in the media.
For much of America, Joe Biden is the president-elect, going about the business of assembling an administration, giving a speech yesterday to announce the creation of a coronavirus task force. World leaders are calling to congratulate him.
But other parts of America believe President Trump that the “lamestream media” are trying to hijack the election on behalf of their pal Joe. Many Trump supporters believe just as strongly in his allegations that the election was warped by widespread fraud.
There is no middle ground on this one. It’s not like arguing over a Trump tax cut or Supreme Court nomination or who won the first debate.
The president has every right to pursue litigation and the press has a responsibility to cover that. But it is a statement of fact that after months of warning about mail ballots, Trump and his campaign have produced no evidence of widespread tampering--certainly nothing that would reverse, for example, Biden’s 50,000-vote lead in Pennsylvania. If that changes, the story would obviously change.
But it’s telling that even with ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox News, CNN and MSNBC and the Associated Press projecting Biden the winner Saturday morning, when newly counted ballots padded his Pennsylvania lead, many people simply refuse to accept that judgment.
Never mind that the same networks made calls reflecting Republicans probably keeping control of the Senate and picking up seats in the House, which virtually no one in the press expected. Never mind that Trump and his supporters were jubilant when the same networks projected him the winner in the early-morning hours four years ago.
But after six years of overwhelmingly negative coverage of Trump, the media can hardly be shocked if they’re no longer seen as an honest broker.
We saw a troubling snapshot last week when Trump said from the White House that the election could be stolen, that there was plenty of fraud--and ABC, CBS, NBC and MSNBC cut away to assail his lies. MSNBC barely lasted a minute before Brian Williams broke in. I have no problem with challenging Trump’s claims afterward, but these networks essentially told their audience they didn’t need to hear from this guy, and pulled the plug.
What troubles me most of all is the notion, fairly widespread among Trump backers, that the networks called the race for Biden for partisan reasons. Here too, the daylong celebration led by Rachel Maddow, Joy Reid and Nicolle Wallace on MSNBC Saturday, which had everything but balloons and party hats, might have conveyed the impression of a less than objective call. So too the snide comment from CNN’s Anderson Cooper, for which he has apologized, that Trump is like “an obese turtle on his back flailing in the hot sun.” And some viewers are upset with Fox, as if it is somehow a news organization’s job to always back Trump even when its own experts have concluded he lost the race.
Network projections can of course be wrong, as they famously were when Al Gore and then George W. Bush were prematurely declared to have won Florida 20 years ago. But no news organization wants to be tarred and feathered for blowing the call in a presidential election.
This is not the usual left-right debate. There’s a fascinating split on the conservative side.
Most elected Republicans are either staying quiet or supporting the president, like Lindsey Graham, but some, such as Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, are not. Bush called Biden and Kamala Harris to congratulate them and says the election was fair. And some Trump advisers are anonymously telling reporters that they are suggesting the president graciously concede.
In the media world, some of Trump’s conservative allies are in his corner and promoting his claims of election fraud. But CNN contributor Rick Santorum, the former GOP senator, has called the president’s charges “dangerous.” Trump’s ally Chris Christie told ABC he shouldn’t be hurling unproven allegations. Author and podcaster Ben Shaprio says it is “deeply irresponsible” for Trump to claim he won the election. And the New York Post’s conservative editorial page says Trump should preserve his legacy by stopping “the conspiracy-addled talk of a ‘stolen’ election.”
The president will ultimately decide whether to cooperate with a transition that the rest of the world is accepting as real. And if that happens, barring new evidence, the networks will feel vindicated. But it’s a sad commentary that many people in this country view their election projections as fake news.