By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

The media’s slow call

I’ve seen quite a few complaints over the past few days about the glacial pace at which the media moved toward calling the election for Joe Biden, with some suggesting it was because they didn’t want to incur the wrath of President Trump. I have no special insight, but I can think of several reasons why I’d be reluctant to pull the trigger if I were in charge of making the call.

  • Fox News and The Associated Press called Arizona for Biden with lightning speed. Yet here we are, five days later, and it’s still not 100% clear that Arizona will end up in the blue column. It now looks like Arizona was a premature call, and it may have made news orgs hesitate about calling other states.
  • News organizations may have set some benchmarks for calling Pennsylvania — and then the vote came in more slowly than expected.
  • Trump has unleashed a horde of lawyers upon the land to sue and challenge outcomes in key states. Those actions are, by all accounts, frivolous and abusive. But the courts are filled with Trump judges, right up to and including the Supreme Court. No doubt the media wanted to make sure that they didn’t call the election only to have the courts halt the count in some cases. It now seems reasonably clear that isn’t going to happen.
  • And yes, there’s no question that media decision-makers knew that calling the election for Biden would unleash a hellburst of rage from Trump. That’s not a reason to hold back. But it is a reason to make absolutely.. certain that Biden was the winner.

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  1. Jim

    The media was slow to call for good reason as you point out but we should also be measured in our response to the good news.

    There will be immediate crises in the near future but the single most important underlying issue in the next decade will be global warming, pollution and other forms of environmental degradation that under Donald Trump gave way to perceived needs for immediate, short term profits. The consequences were negative, from the poles to the tropics,

    The biggest obstacle to progress may be the role that Mitch McConnell sees for himself. He vowed to make Obama a one term president by obstructing everything he wanted to do and, to our detriment, he was pretty damned successful. He has also promised to obstruct Biden. As McConnell said in response to Biden’s success, he sees himself as the Grim Reaper. Yeah…just what the world needs.

    There is a slim hope that things could change on January 5th in Georgia but I will not be holding my breath.

    Yesterday bells were ringing in the streets from New York to Paris and beyond. That was then. This is now. The seriousness of it all is reflected more in the bells of John Donne’s poem.

  2. My family in England was asking on WhatsApp yesterday why the race hadn’t been called; apparently BBC had called it. This is what I replied:
    “Pretty much all of the outstanding states are for Biden, but they’re still not calling them. Some interesting theories: they are afraid to be the first and incur Trump’s wrath, they are politely waiting for Trump to graciously concede, all the others are trying to make Fox go first, they’re waiting until it’s mathematically impossible for there to be any other outcome, and they’re milking it for the ratings.”
    Just after I finished writing all that (on my phone!) news broke on Twitter that a number of sources had called two states to put Biden over. And that Trump was playing golf at the time. I had to admit to them that “wait until he goes to play golf” was not a guess I had seen or thought of!

  3. Suzette Ciancio

    I agree completely.

  4. Deborah Nam-Krane

    I didn’t realize people were upset with the media outlets for not making quick calls. I assumed the calls weren’t being made in the holdouts because the race was just that close — I kept thinking about 2000, when Florida was called for Gore early on — and everyone wanted to avoid a similar mishap. My frustration was reserved for the people who decided that votes in certain states couldn’t be counted until election day, and then seemed to demand that they not be counted at all. But since my candidate won, I’m going to be a gracious winner and try not to get too upset about any of it 🙂

  5. Diana Moses

    I think we should reset our expectations about when we can know the result of a presidential election; I think it should be based on votes counted, not survey data, and I’d be willing to wait a week for such results. (Let me say that I’m aware that the organizations that call races do something more complicated than just take surveys, and that I’ve oversimplified, but my point remains. I also want to apologize for sounding like an old crank, but I really don’t understand why we use survey data, or anything else other than the actual votes. And, no, I don’t have any sympathy for Trump’s objections.) We learn to wait for other things, why not this? My sense is that we can adjust to a longer wait if we are given realistic expectations.

  6. Paul Hutch

    My impression is that due to the all or some of the factors you mentioned, the networks were waiting to call at a much higher mathematical certainty (99.5% to 99.9%) rather than the more commonly used values for predictions (95% to 99%).

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