Top Anchors and News Veterans Share Their Strategies on Covering the 2020 Election

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Rose Wong for Variety

This presidential election, industry insiders say, there will be less time spent at rallies and more time taking the pulse of voters in different regions. Tracking the malfeasance of Russian hackers (and others) is a full-time beat that didn’t exist in 2016, before the dire warnings of the Mueller investigation. News organizations are also shoveling money and resources into digital extensions to meet the seemingly insatiable demand for political news. 

Campaign veterans say the quadrennial ramp-up in political and election coverage will be harder against the backdrop of Trump blasting mainstream outlets as “fake news” and branding journalists “enemies of the people.” The launch of a formal impeachment inquiry in Congress seems likely to only sharpen the differences between Trump’s staunchest supporters and his most profound haters. 

But the single biggest takeaway for veterans of the roller-coaster ride of Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton was the need for journalists to do a better job of listening to everyday Americans. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that most TV news outlets struggled to recognize the force of Trump and the wellspring of discontent in parts of the country that drove his victory even as polling tilted toward a Clinton win. “I think we’ve all thought long and hard about what went right or what went wrong in 2016,” says George Stephanopoulos, chief anchor for ABC News and host of its Sunday public affairs show “This Week.” “We discovered that in some ways we were confronted with something brand-new and didn’t quite know how to handle it.”

Dana Bash, chief political correspondent for CNN, recalls having eye-opening conversations with women at a Philadelphia-area event with Ivanka Trump just a few days after the “Access Hollywood” recording of her father surfaced in October 2016. Donald Trump’s boast that he leveraged his celebrity to make sexual advances on women — “Grab them by the p–sy,” in his words — looked like the last straw for his presidential ambitions to those who discussed the tape in New York and Los Angeles. But not so much in Pennsylvania. “This was an event with suburban middle- and upper-class women,” Bash says. “I remember asking them about the ‘Access Hollywood’ tape, and to a person, they didn’t care. They said, ‘We don’t care, that’s who he is.’ It was really an ‘aha’ moment for me.”

In highlighting the importance of contact with voters, Bash notes that she also got straight talk about divisions on the left from talking with Bernie Sanders supporters in North Carolina. A group of millennials told Bash they would not vote for Clinton despite Sanders’ call for them to embrace the Democratic nominee. “They said: ‘She’s not our person. We’re going to stay home.’ And guess what happened?” Bash recalls. 

Bret Baier, who is chief political anchor for Fox News and host of the nightly “Special Report With Bret Baier,” gained insight from conversations with Uber drivers in swing states such as Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan. He was surprised at how willing the mostly male drivers were to talk politics. 

“Thirty-four out of 36 of them told me they were voting for Donald Trump because nothing’s worked and it’s time to try something different,” Baier says. “One of the reasons Donald Trump won was that a lot of Americans said both parties stink — it’s time to kick the table over and try something different.”

Baier aims to take his “Special Report” out on the road more regularly next year during primary season. “One of the things we learned from 2016 was how people’s views on issues were different in different parts of the country,” Baier says. “That helps you weigh what the country as a whole is thinking.”

Cherie Grzech, VP of politics for Fox News, says that so far the network has focused early coverage of the sprawling Democratic race around regions rather than candidates. “That way, you get a flavor of how many people are showing up at events and where their strengths are,” Grzech says. 

Margaret Brennan, moderator of CBS News’ “Face the Nation” and senior foreign affairs correspondent, sees speaking with voters about economic issues as crucial to the 2020 race. “We want to be out there, away from the coasts, and talk to people in focus groups, get their read on what they are feeling and experiencing in the Trump economy and whether or not they are better off,” she says. 

After the long slog of the Mueller investigation into Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election, Stephanopoulos sees the story of hacking and questions about election security as demanding rigorous coverage. “All of our intelligence officials say [Russian attempts to impact the vote have] never stopped,” Stephanopoulos says. “And that’s even before you get to the Chinese and North Koreans. We have to know if, as a country, we are equipped to handle this.”

One trend from 2016 that will surely benefit coverage next year is the fact that most of the mainstream news organizations have significantly expanded their national affairs and political teams during the past few years. At CNN, a lot of journalists hired on a temporary basis for the 2016 election never wound up leaving because of the demands of covering the Trump administration. “Normally most news organizations hire up for a presidential campaign and then go down again afterward,” says Sam Feist, CNN’s Washington bureau chief and senior VP. After 2016, “we kept that level of staffing and we continued to grow because we had this extraordinary story in Washington.”

The unusual level of general interest in politics sparked by Trump’s candidacy has remained strong during his term and looks to increase as the first primary balloting begins. “It’s pretty clear from some of the early signals we are getting out there — turnout at various events which candidates are holding has been very strong — and so our sense is that interest is high,” says Christopher Isham, CBS News VP and Washington bureau chief. “We want to make sure our organization is getting out there across as many platforms as possible.”

Chuck Todd, NBC News political director and moderator of “Meet the Press,” says digital is the new frontier of the journalistic obligation to inform. “The bottom line in our job as both newsgatherers and news distributors is we need to get people the news they need where they are,” Todd says. “This is a great test for us.” 

NBC News plans to deliver different kinds of news content across a range of venues, which could include NBC News Now, a recently launched streaming service, or via use of Sky News, which NBCU parent Comcast recently acquired. “For me, it’s going to be a great learning experience,” Todd says. “As a political reporter, it’s important for me to know where the consumer is and be obsessed with trying to find them wherever they are.”

ABC News is elevating its digital game this time around through its partnership with Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight political analysis hub. Silver will have a presence in ABC News’ election coverage, while FiveThirtyEight will offer a much deeper dive and an information treasure trove for political junkies. “After more years of covering Trump and modern politics, we’re in a new paradigm now in the way media works and the way voters think,” Silver says.

The daunting task of suiting up for the campaign trail is complicated by the alarming rise in the level of distrust among the public in the reporting by mainstream news organizations. President Trump’s attacks of reporters on Twitter have only made it tougher for the press. That’s one reason CNN has beefed up its fact-checking team for 2020. “We have always done fact-checking, but we’re making it an even higher priority for this election,” Feist says.

Bash says there’s no doubt that journalists feel an unease out on a trail that’s different from those of elections past. The partisan divide between Republican and Democratic events is palpable, she says, although she adds that the anti-media chants have “calmed down a little bit” at Trump and GOP events. 

“I think I look at it with an optimistic lens because the flip side is, I cannot tell you how many people come up to me and say, ‘Thank you for what you do,’” she says. “People feel compelled to say that they understand how important real objective journalism is and how much we’re under attack. That’s a heartening thing that has happened over the past three years.”