Former AP Washington Bureau Chiefs on Lessons Learned Covering the Election

From Connecting, a daily newsletter written by Paul Stevens for current and former AP journalists:

Election 2020—views of former AP Washington bureau chiefs

Walter Mears — One point I found striking was all the attention paid to the fact that Trump did not concede when he lost. Concessions don’t change anything—they only confirm the obvious.

Two examples—Barry Goldwater never conceded defeat in 1964—the LBJ landslide spoke for itself. In 1980 Jimmy Carter conceded early—9 or so Eastern—to Ronald Reagan. Polls were still open in the West and some Democrats said the Carter concession that the presidential race was over lead later voters not to bother and cost Democratic voters for House and other down ballot contests. Tip O’Neill said the quick concession cost the Democrats voters and some House seats in close Western contests.

Sandy Johnson — The media’s obsession with polling and the horse race once again led it down a rabbit hole. If reporters had spent any time out in the states, talking with voters, they might have gleaned a different perspective on the election. Chuck and I drove across the United States last summer and saw a very different America – the one that spawned 70 million votes for Donald Trump. We saw exactly two Biden yard signs across 22 states and upwards of a hundred Trump signs. Also a few Confederate flags, truly disheartening, but that’s another story.

Lesson one: Polling is unreliable and voters are unpredictable. The predicted blue wave sure didn’t extend to the U.S. Senate, the House of Representatives or state legislatures. My retired self would tell my former self to take the pre-election polls with a huge grain of salt. And we saw year after year how rickety the exit polls were.

Lesson two: Trump dominated the news coverage all year in a way that I thought was unfair to the Democrats and ultimately Biden. I wish every news story that started out “President Trump said blah blah blah” had a second graf that said a) it was a lie/inaccurate/misleading and b) a third graf that spelled out Biden’s position. Parity of coverage was critical in this election year like never before.

Lesson three: Beware the next 11 weeks. The media will naturally pivot toward covering Biden and his emerging administration. But Trump will wreak all sorts of havoc — some actions will be public and some actions we absolutely need the news media to ferret out. Right up until noon on Jan. 20, and perhaps beyond.

Lesson four: Resist commentary! I understand that reporters need to monitor social media because it is a gold mine for stories. But please resist the urge to participate. Nobody cares about your opinions and frankly you shouldn’t be sharing them. It only leads to trouble. Same goes with television appearances. The public can’t tell a reporter from a commentator, so don’t join TV panel discussions that blur the lines between the two.

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