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With fear of civil unrest, television could be facing its greatest election week challenge | COMMENTARY

Storefronts near the White House in Washington are covered with boards on Friday, Oct. 30, 2020. Stores in cities across the U.S. are making plans for how to deal with potential civil unrest stemming from the election on Tuesday.
Storefronts near the White House in Washington are covered with boards on Friday, Oct. 30, 2020. Stores in cities across the U.S. are making plans for how to deal with potential civil unrest stemming from the election on Tuesday. (Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times)

With retailers in the nation’s largest cities boarding up windows in fear of unrest in connection with this week’s election, the imperative for television news to be better than ever in covering a presidential election should be crystal clear to network and cable executives.

There have been stories in recent days, advancing election night coverage, with quotes from network and cable news executives saying they know they have to adhere to the highest journalistic standards of verification and not inflame an already angry nation by spreading rumors or disinformation that might incite citizens.

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But there is an even larger responsibility that could be thrust upon the TV news industry ― one that has never been faced in quite the same way in any election ― of being the central source of information for the nation at a time of civil unrest.

In the past, there were always government sources of information that could be trusted. The one exception, since the rise of mass communication in presidential politics in the 1930s, that I can think of is Lyndon Johnson’s administration on information about the Vietnam War. But the information being offered on the economy, civil rights, Social Security and other pressing issues of the 1960s by his administration was of the caliber citizens had come to expect of government agencies.

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Now from the information on global warming to COVID-19, President Trump’s administration has so politicized government websites and spokespeople that nothing coming out of the federal government can be trusted today. And there is even less reason to trust government information connected to election-related civil unrest in this moment when a president who seems more and more disconnected from such realities as COVID-19 is fighting for his political life and tweeting what many see as encouragement to militia members and other far-right, militant groups like Proud Boys.

I point to television rather than online platforms of such trustworthy legacy media institutions as The New York Times, The Washington Post or The Sun, because one of the things media and educational elites have learned from COVID-19 is that not all Americans have access to the internet. My heart breaks for the students left behind by distance learning because they don’t have a computer or their household is not connected to the web. As much as television news was supposed to be a dinosaur for the last 20 years, TV is the one medium virtually every household has access to ― at least, in the case of over-the-air, broadcast TV.

I hope network executives at ABC, NBC and CBS will listen to their public-service angels and rise to the occasion of addressing their audiences as citizens rather than consumers should there be civil unrest in this week when the future of democracy is being decided.

David Zurawik is The Sun’s media critic. Email: david.zurawik@baltsun.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik.

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