Election Threats Spur CBS News to Test New Coverage for Midterms

CBS News’ latest election-night coverage feature won’t be as colorful or dynamic as one of the popular electronic boards that have propelled the careers of people like MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki or CNN’s John King. But it may be exponentially more essential.

CBS will introduce a new “Democracy Desk” to its coverage of the 2022 midterm elections. Norah O’Donnell, Gayle King, John Dickerson and others may narrate the proceedings on the evening of November 8, but three correspondents will be on standby to call attention to hiccups in voting procedures; how candidates who have denied the results of the 2020 presidential election are faring in their races; and whether law-enforcement authorities are seeing any threats to poll workers.

“I don’t think we are going to shy away from leaning into this early in the evening, and I think we will check in all night,” says David Reiter, executive producer of special events for CBS News, in an interview. Viewers should be able to understand throughout the coverage “what is the status of American democracy, which unfortunately we seem not to be able to take for granted.”

Checking on election security and voting threats may become de rigueur for news organizations facing a populace increasingly distrustful of mainstream news and often undermined in real time by social-media habitués spreading bad data. In 2020, TV-news outlets had to scramble as then-President Donald Trump, in a live, late-night speech, told a White House assemblage and millions of American TV viewers, falsely, that he had won the election despite millions of votes left uncounted.

The dynamic has resulted in some decidedly eyebrow-raising moments of television.

On that 2020 Election Night, Norah O’Donnell, faced with a situation likely never encountered by CBS News predecessors like Walter Cronkite or Dan Rather, cautioned viewers about Trump’s potential chicanery. “We at CBS News are not projecting in this presidential race. We will not disenfranchise the millions of voters in those battleground states and the hundreds of thousands in Georgia who also have not had their votes counted,” said O’Donnell, speaking during CBS News coverage of the 2020 election. As Trump spoke, moments later, anchors on NBC, MSNBC and CNBC broke into his comments, with Savannah Guthrie, Brian Williams and Shepard Smith telling viewers why the president was making unfounded claims. “We’ve got to dip in here because there have been several statements that are just frankly not true,” Guthrie told NBC viewers. “We are reluctant to step in, but duty bound to point out when he says we did win this election, we’ve already won, that’s not based on the facts at all,” said Williams.

The task has been a tricky one — and will continue to be so. “Many millions of Americans are concerned about election deniers running for office spreading lies that Trump won the election in 2020 when all the empirical evidence shows that he lost, says Mark Feldstein, chair of broadcast journalism at the University of Maryland. “On the other hand, the networks could lose some viewers who object to coverage that doesn’t reflect their beliefs.” No matter the outcome, he says, examining such issues represents “a genuine important public service.”

CBS will keep its “Democracy Desk” at the ready with elections expert David Becker; justice reporter Jeff Pegues’ and congressional correspondent Scott MacFarlane. The last will have a touch screen at the ready, says Reiter, that lets viewers see how election-denier candidates are doing in individual races.

The networks also have money at stake. Midterm elections typically kick off a fruitful period for TV-news purveyors. As presidential elections draw closer, viewership often increases, reaching a peak as the race for the White House nears an end. Setting the stage properly in 2022 may pay off two years from now.

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