Watching the election with the world’s media at the White House

I went down to the White House last night after hours of watching the election results roll in. Flipping between the networks and watching as journalists spent hours dissecting every micro-movement in the projected vote counts with a level of detail that only reinforced the horse-race nature of contemporary elections was not just anxiety producing, but also a failure to provide a public service to their viewers. Few took the opportunity to slip in a bit of civics or discussion of policy platforms. I don’t really understand why the news media decided its sole role on election night is to prognosticate and project the winner — we will know when the votes are counted!

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Crowd gathered election night in front of the White House (Courtney CRadsch CC BY-NC 4.0)

The role of declaring the winner of a presidential election in the U.S. does not, as the New York Times erroneously tweeted, fall to the news media [it later deleted the tweet]. I know that some “political junkies” want to minutely analyze each county using hi-tech maps that compare the past to the projected future, but not me. (To be fair, I’m also not into reality TV, and last night’s coverage was like watching bad reality TV). So I decided to head down to the White House, where the world’s news media were gathered and check out the protests and demonstrations.

Correspondents were lined up for blocks along 16th street in hopes of getting the distant White House in their shot. And as I made my way to through the crowds (masked, thank you very much!) I heard Arabic, Spanish, German, Russian, and dozens of other languages being spoken as the Washington correspondents for outlets from around the world tried to explain what was happening on this most contested of election nights.

Some of the professional press wore flak jackets, surgical masks, or had helmets hanging from their gear. Far fewer of the journalists who appeared to be on their own or the livestreamers had such basic personal protective equipment (PPE). Most of the global press seemed to want to avoid getting pulled into the scuffles between the odd Trump supporter and anti-racism protesters as they realized that the attempt at provocation was clearly designed to get media attention. Stop taking photos, called one Black Lives Matter protester as they tried to de-escalate by depriving the instigator of the oxygen attention. A group of livestreamers clad in orange who said they had come in from a Trump event in Virginia pushed their way forward as they tried to give their audience a better view while asking for donations to fund their operations.

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Despite all this the mood seemed relatively calm until antifa arrived. As scores of black-clad, hooded activists, several wearing gas masks or helmets and others carrying black umbrellas to protect against the surveillance net created by the thousands of cell phones and cameras, started marching the tension rose. The firecrackers that sounded like gun shots didn’t help.

Being a journalist in the era of facial recognition and the militarization of police raises ethical questions about photographing crowds and protesters. On the one hand, the White House is one of the most public places in the world. The media are gathered there to report on a story of global importance, so if you go to protest it stands to reason that you may be photographed. However, when demonstrators take measures to obscure their identify, when there is a history of law enforcement using photos to identify protesters (especially Black people), then how should journalists approach this? How does the fact that so many people are wearing masks because of COVID19 affect this calculation? Lots of newsrooms and journalists are grappling with this question, and there’s a reason that the photos I took are taken from behind.

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Antifa protesters on election night 2020 in front of the White House

Overall, given the preparation and concern over the potential for election night violence it was relatively uneventful. There was marching and shouting, but for all the downtown buildings and offices boarded up for dozens of blocks around the White House, virtually no destruction. Police in bright yellow vests leaning on bikes lined the streets but seemed relatively chill, a marked difference from the protests over the summer when highly militarized troops and tanks lined the streets. Let’s see what the rest of the week brings.

Media. Technology. Policy. Author Cyberactivism and Citizen Journalism in Egypt: Digital Dissidence and Political Change. PhD in International Relations

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