Another false news narrative was put to rest over the holidays after President-elect Donald Trump was easily elected by the electoral college.
For weeks after Trump won the election Nov. 8, the media churned out dozens and dozens of stories regarding the completely unrealistic possibility the electoral college would stage a revolt and put Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in the White House. Trump had “won” the election, the narrative went, but a relatively small number of electors could still thwart the will of the voters.
“The one scenario that could still get Hillary in the White House,” read the headline on a New York Post story posted the day after the election. Although the story acknowledges there’s no precedent for large numbers of faithless electors — 99 percent have historically picked the candidate they were bound to vote for — the writer chose to propagate the outlandish prospect anyway.
“Democratic presidential electors revolt against Trump,” read a Nov. 22 Politico headline. An aggressive and, as it turns out, totally wrong subhead followed: “The Electoral College could see a historic number of ‘faithless electors.'” The same outlet ran a breathless followup in December on the plans of “rogue electors,” inflaming vain hopes of Clinton supporters even as its own story acknowledged it was a “long shot” chance.
Major media outlets picked up on the trend as well, amplifying impotent petitions and the opinions of celebrities, and cherry picking anti-Trump electors to make it seem like Clinton still had a shot at the White House. Some journalists explicitly tried to legitimize amplifying the unrealistic narrative by reasoning that Trump’s unforeseen win proved that anything can happen in 2016, so maybe it wasn’t really such a long shot.
Just weeks prior, outlets including The New York Times and The Washington Post had been issuing grave warnings of the threat posed to democracy by Trump and his supporters if he lost. Trump was hammered for undermining the foundations of democracy when he reserved the right to legally challenge the results of the election. If he lost, his supporters would take up arms and start a revolution, The New York Times warned. But following his win, these same outlets carelessly amplified a narrative aimed at actually changing the outcome of the election. All that frenzied concern for the legitimacy of the election and the will of the voters apparently vanished along with the narrative that Trump had no shot at winning.
The headlines continued until the electors met to vote Dec. 19, when The Washington Post put this headline above the fold of its front page print edition: “In last shot bid, thousands urge electoral college to block Trump at Monday vote.”
Trump would have had to lose 37 pledged electors that Monday, but only two defected and he was smoothly elected president by the electoral college. Another major narrative regarding Trump had officially died. Clinton, on the other hand, lost more electors than any presidential candidate since James Madison in 1808, making her the least successful candidate with the electoral college in more than 200 years.
Perhaps the narrative pushed by the media was less of a “fake news” situation and more of an effort to delegitimize the results of an election that embarrassed a lot of journalists. As Buzzfeed explained in a piece on how Trump’s opponents will continue to fight the results of the election: “Efforts to undermine Trump’s presidency by Democrats and those Republicans who believe Trump is unfit for office — or violating his oath of office — almost certainly will continue, a cascading series of constant challenges.”
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