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Wary TV Networks Refrained From Early Calls of Battleground States

Wary TV Networks Refrained From Early Calls of Battleground States

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The networks promised they would be cautious. They weren’t kidding.

Call it the Great Wait. With a vote count complicated by the coronavirus pandemic and enormous pressure bearing down on executives eager to avoid the up-is-down shock of 2016, TV news on Tuesday decided to take its time.

As 11 p.m. neared in the East, the major networks had not declared a winner in any major swing state — even crucial Florida, which by early in the evening appeared more or less a lock for President Trump.

On Fox News, the anchor Bret Baier sought some broad-stroke insight from the analyst Karl Rove — “Can we say this is not a landslide either way?” — but Mr. Rove demurred. “I’m not sure we can deduce that from the polling so far,” he said.

On CNN, Wolf Blitzer strolled over to his colleague John King’s interactive map of the United States around 9 p.m. to sum up the state of the race. “A lot of stuff going on,” Mr. Blitzer intoned with his usual air of omniscience. “You see a lot of red, but you see a lot of blue, as well.”

Indeed.

Prudence in network election coverage is preferable to jumping the gun, or — the nightmare scenario — having to claw back a state that had been declared for a candidate.

Still, as the night wore on, anchors seemed ready for answers. Fox News brought on its politics editor, Chris Stirewalt, to explain the reluctance of the network’s Decision Desk to call several races. It turned into a grilling session.

“Our call will hold, we feel very confident,” Mr. Stirewalt said of his team’s early projection that Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic candidate, would take Virginia. He said his team’s projection for Florida had been held up because the state is “a land of alligators when it comes to calling races.”

Before the evening began, major media polls had shown Mr. Biden with a narrow lead in several key states, and some producers had game-planned how to handle a situation in which Mr. Trump, down in the count, tried to declare a premature victory.

Instead, Mr. Trump’s early neck-and-neck showing with Mr. Biden prompted conversations about why the polls had seemed to miss the night’s emerging trends.

On MSNBC, a destination for ardent critics of the president, Nicolle Wallace, who was co-anchoring the proceedings, argued that her colleagues’ focus on North Carolina was wrong, just as the state appeared to be tilting toward Mr. Trump.

“We shouldn’t pull our viewers into dramas that aren’t necessary,” Ms. Wallace said, arguing that the state was a “sideshow.”

When Mr. Biden’s lagging performance in Florida was becoming clear, Ms. Wallace said: “You can feel the hopes and the dreams of our viewers falling down, and you can hear liquor cabinets opening all across this great land.”

CNN’s coverage was dominated by updates from Mr. Blitzer and Mr. King, who zoomed in and out of counties in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Ohio. The conclusions were murky. “Is it significant?” Mr. King asked, peering over results in Pasco County in Florida. “We don’t know.”

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Watching the seesawing results, Mr. King also offered an aside — “This is why elections are fun” — that could have been at odds with viewers anxiously awaiting firm results.

Four years on, TV networks still have scars from the 2016 race, when Mr. Trump’s victory shocked many journalists.

His norm-busting presidency and its political fallout became the central focus of cable news, which watched audiences swell. Math-minded correspondents like MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki were given free rein to geek out on the air with abandon. Even Rachel Maddow, also on MSNBC, remarked early Tuesday evening that she had “been marinating in the numbers” about various tossup Senate races.

Around 9:45 p.m., the CNN anchor Jake Tapper found a moment to step away from the blue-and-red maps and set the stakes for viewers. “It’s just not going to be — as some Democrats were hoping for — they thought it was going to be an early landslide,” Mr. Tapper said. “Which was always a pipe dream.”

Shortly before 11 p.m., the Fox News anchor Chris Wallace backed up the let’s-take-it-slow approach of the data crunchers.

“If it were a tennis match, each side is holding serve,” Mr. Wallace said of the candidates. “They’re winning the states they were expected to win, and the states that were up for grabs are still up for grabs. I think the story of the night has really not been told yet.”

Tiffany Hsu, Edmund Lee and Katie Robertson contributed reporting.

Source: | This article originally belongs to Nytimes.com

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