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Every 4 years, an American tradition is to watch the presidential election results roll in on one of several news networks, which project the winner of each US state.
But this year, as the battle between Donald Trump and Joe Biden tightens, the “decision desks” run by US media outlets have found themselves in the middle of a storm over a few key calls – and whether one in particular came too early.
At issue is the decision late Tuesday, November 3, by Fox News and the Associated Press to proclaim Biden the winner in Arizona over Trump, based on incomplete results.
Agence France-Presse reported the projections based on its methodology of making state calls based on information from two major US outlets. Other organizations including CNN did not make the same projection.
The Trump campaign angrily disputed the call, claiming the president remained in contention in a state that has become critical to victory for both candidates. Votes are still being counted in the southwestern state.
Team Trump also challenged other media projections in favor of Biden.
So was it a good call? Fox News defended its decision, maintaining that Biden’s large lead in the early count appeared insurmountable. The Associated Press offered a similar explanation. But not everyone is so sure.
“In the end, Fox may turn out to be correct, but the initial decision was likely premature,” said Costas Panagopoulos, chair of political science at Northeastern University and a member of the NBC News decision desk team, which has not yet made a call on Arizona.
Panagopoulos said most media outlets rely on the same election pool data but that some augment that with proprietary polling to get a more complete picture as official results trickle in.
“Decision desks are under enormous pressure to get results right, but they also have pressure to do things speedily and they balance things in different ways,” he added.
“For the most part, media outlets and analysts are being cautious” about projecting winners, Panagopoulos noted.
The decision desks already faced challenges on election night because of the massive shift to absentee and mail-in ballots, making exit polling at voting stations less useful.
Most outlets acted near simultaneously in calling the winner of both sure-bet states and battlegrounds, with only some minor lags between networks on calls in key states such as Michigan and Wisconsin.
Ultimately, so far, Arizona is the only one that has sparked any dispute.
The New York Times has explained that while it often follows the AP’s lead, on Arizona, “we do not believe there’s enough solid data on the votes that remain to be counted after Election Day.”
“The data we do have suggests that President Trump could fare well. Mr. Biden was and is still favored in our view,” the Times said.
The Trump campaign sought to discredit Fox News’s call by claiming that the head of its decision desk was “a Democratic operative.”
According to the Times, Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, spoke with Fox News founder Rupert Murdoch seeking to reverse the Arizona decision.
Any reversal of a critical state projection would be a major embarrassment and be a reminder of the 2000 election debacle when networks were forced to retract their projections that Al Gore had won Florida, in a race ultimately won by George W. Bush.
CBS News said its decision desk combines exit poll data and vote tallies with the network’s proprietary polling and surveys of some 100,000 people around the United States.
‘Period of uncertainty’
A recently formed National Task Force on Election Crises had called on media organizations and the National Election Pool – which gathers data for the outlets – to use extra caution for projections.
“This presidential election will be like no other in our history,” said a letter to media organizations from the task force, which includes academics, former elected officials and activists.
“It could take days or weeks to complete an accurate count of all votes,” the letter said.
“This period of uncertainty will add further pressure to an already strained system and allow bad actors to attempt to undermine our democratic process.” – Rappler.com