Day 6

President Clinton: The 2016 election coverage the media never filed

Newsrooms prepared for election night anticipating the first female U.S. president. Then they had to switch gears fast.
Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton makes her concession speech in New York after being defeated by Donald Trump in the November 2016 election. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

This week last year, media outlets around the world prepared to cover the dramatic end to what was widely seen as one of the wildest U.S. presidential campaigns in history, with longtime Democratic hopeful Hillary Clinton taking on Republican businessman and reality TV star Donald Trump.

The emergence of a brash upstart with no political experience pitted against the former Secretary of State may have thrown many for a loop, but still most journalists preparing for the Nov. 8 election fully expected a Clinton victory.

That Tuesday night, networks to newspapers dutifully prepared for a potential win by either candidate, as per the usual custom. But few thought they'd actually have to use the "Donald Trump elected president" graphics and headlines that were at the ready just in case.

Pundits and pollsters weren't the only ones predicting Clinton would easily trump her opponent — CNN reported that even Republican heavyweights and Trump's own campaign staffers also assumed as much.

Given Trump's lack of experience and complete disregard for the typical conventions of a presidential candidate, it seemed near impossible even to those closely following the campaign that he could actually end up in the White House.

So after months of planning for a likely Clinton victory, how did the media handle the shock of Trump's surprise win?

A mock-up image for a potential post-election special commemorative issue of Newsweek pictured Hillary Clinton as "Madam President." (Newsweek)

Anticipating the expected

Illustrator Bob Staake, who created many of The New Yorker's memorable covers, was contemplating how he would depict Clinton's historic win as the first female U.S. president long before election night.

"I had one Hillary Clinton victory cover that I did probably a half-year in advance," Staake says. "It was basically this big heroic caricature of Hillary standing in front of the White House... and if you look very carefully, you can see Bill Clinton on the second floor smiling and waving his hand."

"We would joke that maybe we should have a Trump plan," says Slate executive editor Allison Benedikt, then news director at the website. "And then we would laugh it off and not create one," she admits.

You go from being a human being immersed in the moment to a chronicler of that event.- Alexander Panetta, Washington correspondent for Canadian Press

Canadian Press Washington correspondent Alexander Panetta had also began preparing for election night well in advance. 

"I had the bottom of the story written — essentially a history of the election, and a little bit on Hillary Clinton's life story," he says.

The night of the election, newspapers around the globe designed front pages picturing both candidates as the potential winner, like this Clinton cover by the Toronto Star. (Toronto Star)

Preemptive strike

As voters headed to the polls, most journalists were busy polishing their preemptive coverage, designed around the long-predicted outcome.

"My job was to make sure we had a plan for how to cover election night — and we thought we had a great plan, because we thought Hillary was going to win," Benedikt says.

"We had our homepage lined up for what it would look like when Hillary won, picking out the perfect picture, the mood that we thought we wanted to evoke," she explains.

Similarly, Staake was also labouring over what his artistic vision of a groundbreaking Clinton presidency would look like.

"In the lead-up to the election, I was working on a number of covers for The New Yorker, all based on a Hillary Clinton victory," he recalls.

"The idea that I had was that you see the White House in the morning, literally the day after the election, and you see the sun rising next to the White House, [and] when you look closely, you see that the sun is actually the international sign for woman."


“The First,” by Malika Favre, the cover The New Yorker would have published had Clinton defeated Donald Trump to become the first female U.S. president. (The New Yorker)

Switching gears

But as the electoral maps slowly continued to turn Republican red well into the night, most outlets began to realized they were faced with having to quickly pivot to Plan B.

"I don't think there was one moment during election night that all of a sudden we all thought, 'Oh, man, Trump's gonna win,'" Benedikt explains.

"We were still trying to figure out the math of how this might turn around — we were looking at the upshot numbers, hoping that they would provide some solace that all of our planning was not for nought."

"I realized at about three o'clock in the morning that all of us New Yorker cover artists who were doing these Hillary Clinton victory covers would have to shift gears very quickly and do Donald Trump victory covers, and that's when I had to jump into gear," Staake says.

Panetta also recalls the abrupt shift in plans vividly. "You go from being a human being immersed in the moment to a chronicler of that event," he notes. "I suddenly started attacking my keyboard, and I didn't stop until about 11 o'clock the next morning."

Benedikt and her team also pulled an all-nighter at the Slate office pulling together in-depth coverage of the unexpected turn of events, while Staake faced one of the tightest deadlines of his career.

"I probably had about an hour," he says. "The victory cover I came up with was embarrassingly simple. It was nothing more than a red brick wall with some bricks removed at the top [that] partially obscure the iconic New Yorker masthead — very stark, and the title was simply 'The Wall.'"

"The Wall," illustrator Bob Staake's cover for The New Yorker's November 21, 2016 issue, following the U.S. presidential election. (The New Yorker)

Lessons learned

Covering elections is always rife with adrenaline and the element of surprise, but all three journalists note that remarkable night has had a direct impact on the way they approach their work.

"That night for me was totally unprecedented as a journalist, and it's actually changed the way I view the world and our journalism since," Benedict says. "I think we've all become much more skeptical in the year since he's won."

I want us to understand the dynamics of what's happening in our country better than we did last year.- Allison Benedikt, executive editor of Slate

"Everyone in the news business will be the first to tell you that events change at an hourly rate now," Staake points out.

"In a way, November 8th hasn't ever ended," Panetta concurs. "I didn't go to bed that night, and it's been one long, relentless never-ending news cycle since then."

"One thing I'll be interested to see is what will happen next time — what will happen in 2020. And I don't mean who will win, but I think how we prepare and how we go into both the campaign and election night in particular will be really different," Benedikt notes.

"I want us to understand the dynamics of what's happening in our country better than we did last year."

To hear the full segment with Allison Benedikt, Alexander Panetta and Bob Staake, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.