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News Organizations Prepare For Likely Election Night Confusion


As we heard earlier in the program, there are serious concerns that disinformation from many different sources, including the White House, could make for a very confusing election night and beyond. We wanted to know more about how the major television news networks are preparing to deal with that, so we called NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. And he's with us now.

David, welcome. Thanks for joining us.


MARTIN: Well, of course, as you know, I mean, election night coverage in the past has tended to follow certain set rhythms and patterns. You know, we're making the call based on, you know, whatever factors, whatever organization the networks have tapped to do that. What are the possible pitfalls of that this time around?

FOLKENFLIK: Election officials and local and state election officials have told us that other news organizations in recent weeks - you know, they've been swamped trying to deal with the kinds of misinformation that they've been getting all over. Well, the press has been trying to sort through that - field that, too, and reflect it back to the public. It's tougher when you have a major candidate and a lot of his supporters who has a record of making fraudulent claims.

You know, the real pitfall's, is he going to claim that he won something that he didn't, maybe through sending senior surrogates out, like his son? Is he going to claim fraud if something didn't go out the way that he wanted? For news organizations, these are going to be tough, tough calls.

And there's also going to be - you know, if they're resisting making those calls, do you carry such pronouncements live? And then, after the fact, do you say, we're going to fact-check this for you, even if you've allowed five, 10, 15 minutes to elapse? These are going to be very difficult.

So, you know, they've got to be very careful for their state projections. They've got to be very thoughtful about what coverage they take live. They've got to be very careful to hold the line in terms of allowing misrepresentations to fly, this perhaps night more than any.

MARTIN: Have the networks said what they're going to do about any of these issues?

FOLKENFLIK: You know, in recent days and weeks, I've talked to folks at all the five major networks and the Associated Press, and they say that they're going to be very slow. Nobody wants to be the first to get something wrong, even though they want to be the first to call states. They said it's going to be much more important than ever to get it right.

MARTIN: OK, but what about the president's favorite network, Fox?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, so let's hold two competing thoughts in our mind at the same time. Fox News may be a news organization, but it's one where the opinion side is the tail that wags the dog. It is dominant. It is the reason for being. They're not making money off being a news organization. They're doing it because they're feeding a certain business imperative for the Murdoch family that owns them, but also a very strong ideological component.

That said, on election night, unlike MSNBC, which has some of its main opinion hosts basically anchoring the primetime coverage on a lot of these major nights, Fox is going to have Bret Baier, Martha MacCallum and Chris Wallace, perhaps their most clear-cut impartial journalist, handling the coverage. You'll hear a lot of punditry from a lot of folks, but their decision desk is actually pretty respected.

The real question is, what do they do if the president of the United States - somebody who's been on their air repeatedly, somebody who has goosed their ratings through the heavens - comes on the air and starts to say things that aren't true? Are they going to pull it off the air, take it taped and try to fact-check him? Are they going to kind of haplessly say, you know, a lot of that stuff, folks, doesn't quite hold up, but, you know, we're rolling with it? We're trying to get you information as we get it.

How are they going to handle it if their, you know, source and viewer No. 1, Donald Trump, is also the lead source of misinformation that night?

MARTIN: So, David, forgive me for asking you to project or speculate, but what is your sense of what's ahead? What should we expect?

FOLKENFLIK: You know, if things are within the margin of error, if things are close, if the margin appears to be a lot less than uncounted absentee ballots, I think you're going to see room for a lot of mischief. And to be honest, I think if it's really close, despite all the good intentions, despite people really trying hard to hold the line this time, I still think it's going to end up being a mess.

MARTIN: That is NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik.

David, thank you.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.
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