Nov 12, 2020 - Politics & Policy

When the news is what the news did

Illustration of a newspaper front page as a flag. 
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

When was Joe Biden elected president? The answer is: When the media declared him president.

Why it matters: Most of the time, when the media reports a major news story, some event in the world happened that is worth reporting. In this case, however, the important event was simply the fact that the media is reporting the story.

Between the lines: Election Day was November 3; the Electoral College meets on December 14; and no one knows when or whether the government will come to its official "ascertainment" that Biden has won.

  • The true date of Biden's election, however, was Saturday, November 7. That's the date that Biden officially declared victory, the date that street parties began and Champagne was opened, and the date that Axios ran the first all-caps headline in its history: BIDEN ERA BEGINS.
  • Twitter and Facebook look only at media calls when it comes to making the determination as to whether it's true that a candidate has won the election. Twitter requires two decision desks to have called the election; Facebook requires six.

The big picture: The media plays a crucially important yet unformalized role in terms of declaring the outcome of elections. Donald Trump might not like it, and no one officially gave them the job, but it's undeniably the case.

What they're saying: "Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. was elected the 46th president of the United States on Saturday." (Emphasis added.) That's how the New York Times led its front page on Sunday, under a "Biden beats Trump" headline stating that the race had been "finally called".

  • Nowhere does the NYT article say who did the calling, or how they did it. And while this year there were some articles attempting to explain the process, they didn't reveal anything substantive about exactly how it works or why there can be such a big difference between when different desks call certain races.
  • This year, Decision Desk HQ called the election early on Friday morning, more than 24 hours before the other organizations.

Between the lines: The alchemy of calling elections is opaque and mysterious. There are nine organizations that have given themselves the job of doing so — five TV networks (NBC News, ABC News, CBS News, CNN, Fox News); two wire services (Reuters, AP); one newspaper (the New York Times); and finally Decision Desk HQ, an independent service funded by subscriptions from other media organizations.

The big picture: Given the importance of the outcome of the presidential election, it's just not feasible to wait more than a month to declare a winner, until after the vote in the Electoral College. But precisely because the official result only happens in December, no government authority can declare a winner before then.

The bottom line: News organizations tend to be a little uncomfortable with the idea that they actually manufacture the news, rather than simply report it. But the job needs to be done, and there's no one better to do it.

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