CNBC’s Eamon Javers Talks 2020 Campaign Coverage: ‘We Have to Refocus Ourselves on the Lessons of 2000’

By A.J. Katz Comment

Throughout 2020, TVNewser has been speaking with veteran political reporters from across the TV news spectrum about their presidential election memories.

We’re publishing our conversations at least once per month, and calling this feature the TVNewser Notebook.

Next up, CNBC Washington, D.C., reporter Eamon Javers.

Javers just marked a decade at CNBC, joining the network as a Washington, D.C., correspondent in June 2010 after a run as a print reporter for Politico. During his time at Politico, Javers covered the intersection of Wall Street and Washington. Prior to that, he was a Washington correspondent for BusinessWeek, writing extensively about Washington lobbying, including the Jack Abramoff scandal and unearthed previously unknown incidents of corporate espionage.

We recently caught up with Javers for this feature to get his thoughts on presidential election coverage, past and present.

TVNewser: Provide us with an interesting anecdote from the first presidential election you ever covered.

Javers: I was an editor of my college newspaper (the Colgate Maroon News) in the fall of 1992, when Bill Clinton was campaigning against an incumbent George H. W. Bush. I remember a lot of discussion among the staff about how much we should cover the presidential election and how much to focus on the staples: college events, sports, controversies about the fraternity system and that sort of thing. In the end, local news won out and we didn’t do as much as some wanted on the presidential front. It was the right call. Lesson learned: play to your strengths and serve your audience!

The DNC pushed its 2020 convention from July to mid-August over Covid-19 concerns, and it’s even possible that the party might move to a “virtual convention.” As someone who has covered a number of conventions, what do you believe is the best solution?

Here’s the secret: The conventions were already virtual. The consolidation of power by the parties and their nominees has meant for decades that the conventions are actually just highly produced coronations, and they haven’t been a venue in which anything is really decided in a long time. Not having to devote enormous resources to covering conventions will free up budget space to report important campaign news. The challenge for the political parties will be to figure out how to put together an online event that will capture the news cycle, capture eyeballs online and focus positive attention on their candidate. There’s no indication either party has figured out how to do that though.

Is there anything you’ve learned from previous election coverage that you’re taking into account as you cover this one?

The lesson of 2016 looms large: national polls can be useless in an Electoral College system. At CNBC, we have been polling the battleground states for our States of Play polls, and I think those give a much better picture of how the Electoral College is likely to play out.

I also think we have to refocus ourselves on the lessons of 2000. That year, early “calls” contributed to confusion surrounding the final result and ultimately caused mistrust of the process among voters. Today, if there is a disputed election scenario again, we in the media will have to be extremely careful to make sure we are dispelling confusion, not adding to it.

How has the evolution of social media changed how you cover presidential elections?

It puts out a lot more noise, but not nearly enough signal. I think reporters can be confused by thinking that what they see on their self-curated feeds is an accurate representation of what’s going on in the country. That said, it can be an invaluable resource, especially for following other reporters to know what they have verified and reported.

Who is a one political reporter whose work you really admire?

There are two: the late David Broder and the late Gwen Ifill. Broder once spoke to a small group of us reporters about the dangers of losing the forest for the trees. He said reporters can accurately tell the voters every detail about the system of government in this country, but “if you don’t tell them it’s falling apart, you’re not doing your job.” And Ifill brought such a sense of fairness and accuracy to the work. It’s something I’ve always tried to emulate in my career.

What’s the best meal/restaurant you’ve had/been to during election coverage?

CNBC cafeteria leftovers in 2012 during the 90 minutes or so between when we stopped late night coverage and began early morning coverage. In 2016, I don’t think we had any minutes off at all. I remember going straight from Hillary Clinton HQ to the CNBC studio and then out to Trump Tower for morning hits.

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