The 2020 US Presidential election was never going to be simple, straightforward or dull.
However, good old Superman’s catchphrase of ‘Truth, Justice and the American Way’ has arguably never been under more threat.
It’s not because it’s a hugely polarised country. It is not because it’s a tight race. It’s because of one man – the current President.
Dealing with he who shall not be named is a huge challenge for the US broadcast media in particular, and guess what, it’s a problem that will become increasingly relevant for UK broadcasters in months and years to come.
Having been silent on twitter for an amazing five hours, the President exploded into life in the early hours of Wednesday morning with a tweet accusing ‘Them’ of trying to “steal the election”.
How did the media treat it?
CNN’s anchors and panelists were reasonably critical pretty quickly – saying there was no evidence for this. But look at the caption – it presents the President’s tweet – a downright lie – just as it would present official verified information – the casual viewer is left to make up their own mind as to what is true.
Social media was different – both Twitter and Facebook put up warnings about the content and Twitter actually restricted the ability of ‘viewers’ to see the tweet.
An hour or so later came that ‘victory’ speech. It was – quite rightly – run live and uninterrupted across the networks. Even by the President’s standards it was outrageous, full of lies, incendiary and dangerous – a clear attempt to discredit the election (even though he may yet still win it).
This time CNN’s anchors and even their Republican guest denounced much of it pretty quickly in no uncertain terms and defended the work of staff counting votes across the country. This time the caption also reflected the false nature of the President’s claims.
Over the past few years we’ve seen US networks become more bullish when it comes to exercising their editorial judgement on the President’s speeches and content.
It will be fascinating to see if the networks re-run the President’s election night speech as a news item over the coming hours and days. Given the content – it’s hard to make a case for them doing so.
If they do, even with appropriate commentary and condemnation around it, it just fans the flames and gives oxygen and exposure to the lie. It should be ignored.
What about the UK?
There’s always been a lot of crossover between US and UK democracy, politics and media. There is a huge synergy between the more extreme right-wing factions in both countries and the way they approach campaigning.
The President has achieved relative success this week – whether he wins or not his vote count has increased since 2016. This will give more confidence and perceived legitimacy to those who would use hugely disruptive tactics and messaging, whether in election campaigns or the day to day business of governance and engagement.
Part of this far-right agenda is the deliberate undermining of trust in institutions – political, legal, media, education and in businesses.
The media needs to continue to make brave editorial choices live and in real time. For broadcasters that critically comes down to what’s on screen much more than what’s said.
A huge technical, editorial and ethical challenge. But what’s at stake is nothing less than Truth, Justice and the American Way. (with the UK to follow).
Thanks for reading.