The US 2020 election broadcast archive
As Joe Biden has now passed his first 100 days as the 46th President of the United States of America, it is time to reflect on the broadcasts of the US presidential election archived by the British Library. 2020 thrust upon us a global pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, the final months before the UK left the European Union, plus a Presidential election in America like no other. In 2016, the Library’s Broadcast News service archived the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President, continuing to collect broadcasts dealing with his presidency over the following four years. The 2020 US Presidential election was certain to be an interesting one, with an incumbent President with a background outside of politics versus a career politician who was a former Vice President.
CNN Final Presidential Debate, 23 October 2020
The Democratic nomination debates were recorded for the Library’s Broadcast News service with extensive coverage by CNN and the debates covered by many of the world’s broadcasters in their news programmes. All was going as expected … and then the Coronavirus pandemic hit the world.
This meant that Broadcast News was now being run from a curator’s spare bedroom, rather than from the British Library’s News, Radio and Moving Image area at our St Pancras site. The Coronavirus not only made adapting to new working conditions tricky for Broadcast News, but it also made politicians across the globe develop strategies and legislature to deal with a pandemic.
In the US, President Trump’s handling of the pandemic had attracted much news coverage throughout the year. His press briefings as part of the White House Task Force we captured from CNN coverage, albeit with the problem of no regularly scheduled time and sometimes patchy coverage. A trawl around other news organisations covered by Broadcast News resulted in finding fuller broadcasts of the briefings on Turkey’s TRT World, Sky News and the BBC. On many occasions CNN sometimes only broadcast the questions taken after the speeches were made, whereas TRT World and Russia’s RT would only show the speech itself. Plenty of documentaries were broadcast covering Donald Trump’s four years as President. These were also archived for Broadcast News, originating from stations across the world that that are licensed to broadcast in the UK.
This was all good preparation for the run up to the election itself. First there would be three Presidential debates. The initial one, on 29 September 2020, was a strange one, to put it mildly. CNN had full coverage, so their programming was duly archived. However, the combative manner of the debate, with Trump’s interruptions and responses in particular, triggered worldwide interest in how the debate was conducted. Breakfast news programming from Britain’s main news networks, the BBC, ITV, and Sky were recorded to show the post-debate analysis for each channel, to avoid bias. The major news programmes from China’s CGTN, RT, Al Jazeera, Japan’s NHK World, France 24 and TRT World, also gave their judgement, and that was also recorded.
Then the President caught COVID-19. His rallies had been noticeable for both himself, his aides and most of the crowds not wearing masks and not practicing social distancing. In contrast, his rival, Joe Biden, always wore a mask at his events and reporters and attendees were segregated. The Democratic Party’s convention was held virtually, compared to the Republican Party’s convention being held in large rallies. Both conventions’ highlights were recorded, and the key speeches were captured from live footage.
TV coverage criticized how the President was holding ‘super spreader’ events with his rallies, especially the gathering announcing the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett as an Associate Justice to the Supreme Court.
It was announced that the second presidential debate would be a virtual one, owing to the President’s diagnosis. Donald Trump rejected this idea, however, the two candidates instead taking part in separate ‘Town Hall’ events. It was impossible for CNN to show both Town Halls live, so highlights were broadcast and, again, the news broadcasts of the BBC, ITV, Sky News, Al Jazeera, CGTN and TRT World would also show clips and give their comments.
The final TV debate was held on 22 October. Both candidates attended, and this ended up as a stark contrast to the first one, resembling the civilized debate held prior to this in the debate between Vice President Mike Pence and the Democratic Party’s VP choice, Kamala Harris. Both were archived from CNN’s coverage and a balance of views was also obtained from coverage by the other news organizations.
A mixture of CNN’s coverage and that of TRT World, Sky and the BBC was captured to gain a flavour of the rallies then held in the run up to the election itself.
TRT World, America Decides, 3 November 2020
And then election day itself came. An election like no other, with all sorts of protestations that mail-in votes would lead to a fraudulent result, and a vicious second wave of the Coronavirus in America leading to many wanting to vote without attending the polling stations on the day.
The views of both President Trump and Joe Biden about voting were made clear in the run up to the election. Late night programmes from CNN were taken in addition to CNN Newsroom (which is recorded daily) to reflect the nature of voting intentions and the candidates’ views on this. CNN had many interviews with local officials in areas that had wildly different views on voting procedures, so this was an important set of programmes to archive in order to provide researchers into this election a chance to see how America was split on this issue. Most Trump supporters would turn up to vote on the day, many rejecting wearing a mask. Most Biden supporters suggested that they would largely vote by mail, also worried that voting on the day might bring intimidatory tactics from right-wing extremist supporters.
Early voting in some states also took place and scenes of day long queueing, and interviews given whilst waiting in line, were also recorded from CNN sources and other broadcasters.
It was decided to take all night coverage of election day itself from several stations to reflect balance in the views of the presenters. CNN, BBC, ITV, and Sky were chosen, and CGTN, Al Jazeera and TRT World were also recorded after polls closed giving their initial reactions to the results. However, there was no clear result and the election coverage continued over the next week.
It was decided to take all of CNN’s coverage throughout each day until a winner was declared. CNN had received good press reviews for their coverage (known on social media as ‘The Map Programme’), and this was complemented by coverage of key state declarations and updates from the BBC, Sky, ITV and Broadcast News’ overseas stations in Turkey, China, Japan, the Middle East, France, Nigeria and Russia. There were many documentaries about both President Trump and Joe Biden broadcast across many channels in the run up to, and during, the election. These were also archived.
Our broadcast archive of election day featured radio as well. The coverage from BBC Radio 4, BBC 5 Live, BBC World Service, LBC, TalkRADIO and Monocle 24 was all archived for our National Radio Archive pilot. This also included Siren Radio, a small community station set up in Lincoln University. They apologised for not having live coverage due to the station being closed due to the lockdown. Yet, they were able to record 20-minute interviews with professors in the US, political commentators in Washington and talk to American Studies students, who were watching the election. They returned to get their thoughts in the aftermath of the election one week on.
Bradford Community Broadcasting schedules the current affairs programme ‘Democracy Now!’ each day. This is a syndicated programme based in New York and has proved to be invaluable in covering the pandemic and the lead up to the election. Its coverage of voting and the aftermath of the election is helped by access to big names linked to social commentary and research, and the hour-long programme is a valuable resource into what life is like in America using first-hand accounts.
ITV News, 6 January 2021, with reporter Robert Moore at the Capitol
Finally, on November 7, Joe Biden was declared the winner. Again, TV coverage of the result was archived from the same sources. At this point the 24-hour coverage from CNN was halted and regular recordings of CNN Newsroom would report on the situation from then on.
Of course, that was not the end of the matter. President Trump issued lawsuits to recount or reject votes where he claimed that the voting had been illegal and refused to concede. His chief lawyer, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, held a bizarre press conference at the parking lot of the ‘Four Seasons Total Landscaping’ store in Philadelphia, a business located near a sex shop and a crematorium. Coverage of that was not covered live by CNN, but was by Sky News, with an amused Adam Boulton puzzling over the peculiar location.
With President Trump still refusing to accept his defeat, continually claiming that it was a fraudulent election, Georgia had its state runoff in early January. A run-off election was called because no candidate in the Senate election had enough votes to clear the state mandated percentage for a clear win. This meant that with two Senate seats at stake, and the US Senate majority for the Republican Party at risk, more campaigning by the two parties began again. All major rallies and speeches were again captured from CNN, TRT World, BBC, ITV and Sky. The election day itself was captured in full via CNN. With the lead changing hands throughout the night, it was a tense affair. Finally, both seats were won by the Democrats, meaning that they would now hold the majority in the Senate.
But this was not the end of the matter. One month later, America was rocked by an event that shook its democracy to its foundations. With the College Electoral Vote due to be ratified by Congress on the 6 January 2021, President Trump held a rally in Washington, where he and several key speakers once more condemned the validity of the election and its outcome and incited his followers to take action. The speech by President Trump and coverage of the rally was again archived from CNN broadcasts and other news outlets around the world.
What followed next was unprecedented in American history. A large group of Trump supporters forced their way into the Capitol building in Washington DC as the Senate was in session. CNN was covering the Electoral Vote session and this coverage continued as the rioters entered the building. The world’s news networks soon started following the events live. Broadcast News has the coverage of CNN, BBC News, Sky, TRT World and Al Jazeera. ITV’s coverage was particularly enlightening, as their reporter, Robert Moore was able to talk to the protesters as they entered the building and even within it. Euronews covered the event from their studio, but their coverage included up to the minute reaction on social media from world leaders and senior politicians. The subsequent Impeachment of President Trump for a second time was also captured by CNN and all major news stations also covered the session in the Senate in depth.
The Inauguration of the new president happened without the out-going President in attendance. His final message as President was recorded for the archives, and full coverage of the Inauguration of Joe Biden taken from the coverage of CNN, BBC, ITV, Sky, TRT World and Al Jazeera. Kamela Harris becoming the first woman to become Vice President, and the first black person to achieve that office, also allowed some of the stations to reflect on the historic aspect of the day. Amanda Gorman became the youngest poet to perform at a presidential inauguration, reading her poem, ‘The Hill We Climb’. The British Library has a direct connection with Amanda as she is a 2020 Eccles Fellow (one of the awards offered by the Eccles Centre for American Studies).
A huge amount of coverage of this historic chapter in American history is now archived as TV and radio coverage. With 2020 and 2021 being significant for a global pandemic, the US election could have been a sideshow. The material archived by Broadcast News and the National Radio Archive will show researchers in the future, just how extraordinary this moment in history was.
Neil McCowlen, Broadcast Recordings Curator
Broadcast News is available in all British Library reading rooms