There was an interesting moment on Monday as the hosts and guest on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” were discussing the coverage of the election. Willie Geist raised the possibility that President Trump could declare victory on election night before all the votes have been counted. Joe Scarborough responded that NBC would simply make a Twitter-like determination and not carry the speech. It would not be treated as obvious news but rather “disinformation” . . . regardless of what has transpired on election day.
What is ironic is the Geist had just slammed Trump for making plans to send in lawyers “no matter what happens.” Without missing a beat, Scarborough then announced that no matter what happens on the election (like a surprise victory), Trump’s speech would be blocked for NBC viewers.
“We’ll be doing coverage on Peacock and we can assure you if Trump declares victory we’ll say, don’t take the feed. It’s not going to happen. We won’t be part of any disinformation campaign, we’ll be doing election coverage until midnight or whenever is over.”
The point tracked a statement from Biden campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon who declared that “[u]nder no scenario will Donald Trump be declared a victor on election night, and that’s fundamentally how we want to approach tomorrow.” I can understand the mathematical point but the Biden campaign does not make such decision. Moreover, this appears only a bar on a Trump victory speech. Some Democrats like James Carville are predicting that they will know by 10 pm. I would find it difficult to see a scenario where an election night victory could be declared but we do not know what will occur today in terms of any surges or landslide. More importantly, the issue raised on Morning Joe goes to the coverage not the claims on election night.
I happen to like and respect Scarborough. I have defended him and his co-host and wife Mika Brzezinski after personal attacks from President Trump. However, this statement was unnerving. I understand what he and Geist are saying about the need to count many votes sent in by mail. The problem is that they are in the news business and NBC viewers tune in for news. This would be, by any measure, news. Indeed, if premature or completely baseless, a victory speech would be even more significant news.
What concerns me is the relative ease with which news figures now state their role in protecting viewers from what they consider “disinformation.” It is precisely the slippery slope that took us to the expanding private censorship on sites like Twitter and Facebook, where a well-founded story in the New York Post is blocked for weeks. Despite the tech companies admitting that the move was a mistake, Democratic Senators demanded more censorship from the companies in the recent hearing. What is missing is the original clarity of the free and open forum of the Internet.
Now a news program is pledging in advance to block its viewers from hearing the President directly if he claims victory on Tuesday night. Instead, they can expect the same formulaic, approved coverage that we now expect in the age of echo chamber journalism. NBC recently was criticized for a bait-and-switch story on Hunter Biden where they debunked an obscure document rather than address the confirmed emails found on Biden’s laptop.
Obviously, viewers on NBC can switch over to Fox or another network to watch any presidential speech on election night. However, Scarborough was assuring the viewers that they would be protected from such news. Clearly he viewed promising to censor the President as a draw for NBC’s viewers — assuring viewers that they would be protected from the news like some journalistic safe space. Protecting viewers from news was not a goal of NBC when I worked for the company many years ago. This would be news any way you cut it. It can be immediately followed by commentary pointing out that such a claim may be premature. However, we do not know “what will happen” on Tuesday night anymore than President Trump does beyond one guarantee . . . it will be news.