Covering the election charades in Arizona and Florida

In Arizona, the 2020 election still isn’t over. Well, it is—the votes were counted, counted again, and certified months ago; Biden won the state—but Republicans in the state senate have insisted on auditing every ballot cast in Maricopa County (which gave Biden his victory margin), ostensibly to address constituents’ “questions” about election “security,” but really to stoke Trump’s Big Lie of massive fraud. To conduct the audit, lawmakers contracted Cyber Ninjas, a Florida firm whose CEO has suggested that Trump won Arizona. The process began two weeks ago, at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum. So far, the auditors have worked through about ten percent of ballots cast; they have to conclude their work by next Friday, when the venue will be needed for high-school graduations. One reason the process is taking so long is that the auditors are checking that ballots weren’t flown in from Asia by—yes, really—checking the paper for traces of bamboo. This week, the Justice Department warned that the whole sorry enterprise might be illegal. In the days following the election, I wrote that early efforts to overturn the result were hard to cover, because of the jarring tonal clash between their amateurish absurdity and the very real threat they posed. Six months on, that’s still true.

The Arizona audit (or, as some have called it, “fraudit”) has been a tough story for practical reasons, too—journalists have been barred from the room. On day one, Jen Fifield, a reporter at the Arizona Republic, got inside as a registered observer, but she was prohibited from taking notes or photos; when she stepped out to post occasional updates, she was told that wasn’t allowed. Kyra Haas, of the Arizona Capitol Times, likewise tried to get in as an observer, but was escorted off the premises; she was told first that her registration hadn’t gone through, then that she needed letters of recommendation. (Fifield was not asked for letters.) A few days later, officials agreed to allow a press pool comprising a rotating reporter, photographer, and videographer to sit in a makeshift press box above the floor. (The Veterans Memorial Coliseum seats fifteen thousand people.) Last Friday, Ryan Randazzo, a pooler on duty for the Republic, tweeted a photo of a former state lawmaker—who was on the ballot in November, lost, and was pictured in the crowd outside the US Capitol on January 6—participating in the audit. Randazzo was swiftly kicked out, on the grounds that his photo included a ballot, even though none of its markings were visible; Republican officials have also chided journalists for zooming in on the faces of auditors.

From the Existential Issue: Digital journalism didn’t have to be this way

The same restrictions have not been extended to One America News Network, a pro-Trump channel that is providing an official livestream of the audit. (Christina Bobb—an OAN host who previously volunteered to work on Trump’s post-election legal push and fronted an OAN “documentary” about the “Arizona election heist”—helped raise funds for the audit.) Julia Shumway, a reporter with the Capitol Times who has also done pool duty at the audit, tweeted last weekend that Gateway Pundit, a right-wing blog, has had preferential access to the room, too. “Basically, it seems like there’s one set of (restrictive) rules for local and national nonpartisan media,” Shumway wrote, “and another for right-wing outlets.”

The Arizona audit isn’t an isolated insanity. Trump and his allies have glommed onto a forthcoming audit of a local race in Windham, New Hampshire, where a recount revealed an error that Trump wants to turn into a national scandal. And Republicans around the country aren’t just litigating the 2020 election; they’re busily proposing restrictive new voting laws predicated on the same set of lies. Right-wing outlets have had preferential access there, too: yesterday, Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, excluded reporters from a bill-signing ceremony that was broadcast live on Fox & Friends. “What’s going to be different about Florida’s election in 2022?” Brian Kilmeade, a host, asked from the studio. “What are you about to sign?” Across the screen, DeSantis picked up a pen and scribbled his signature on what he called “the strongest election-integrity measures in the country”; he then picked up a poster full of talking points and showed it to the camera as Steve Doocy, another host, exclaimed, “You came with graphics!” Erik Wemple, a media critic at the Washington Post, called the signing an “impeccably produced propaganda show.” (Fox said it didn’t know DeSantis would be signing the bill on air and that it did not demand exclusive access; Wemple countered that “the failure to make thoroughgoing plans to accommodate other media outlets is a de facto act of exclusivity.”)

Then, early this morning, the Texas legislature advanced a voting bill, after hours of Democrats trying to block the process. The Democrats succeeded in stripping out some of the bill’s most restrictive provisions, but others remain; even more troubling is the fact that the final text isn’t settled yet, and, as the Texas Tribune’s Alexa Ura reports, the measure may now be rewritten behind closed doors. Greg Abbott, the state’s governor, is expected to sign the final bill; it’s unclear if he’ll do so on Fox, but he did recently use Fox to sow nonsense about the Green New Deal being to blame for failures of the state’s energy grid during a deadly cold snap, before he deigned to address the state’s press corps. The pattern is clear: create political theater for right-wing audiences while keeping journalists with tough questions out of the room.

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How should reporters wrap their minds around this routine, and the whole dance of disenfranchising voters? Asserting the centrality of race is key. As I wrote recently, after Republicans in Georgia passed a voting bill, coverage should address not just the single Big Lie—that the election was stolen—but the collection of lies—that the election was stolen and therefore something must be done about it—while adopting a standard of zero tolerance against any unfounded efforts to make voting harder. As Jessica Huseman, the editorial director of Votebeat, wrote last month for the Daily Beast, we should be less concerned with comparing states’ voting policies to each other, because in many cases they aren’t comparable, and instead ask a simple question: “Would this bill make voting in this state harder to access than the current rules do?”

Below, more on voting and big lies:

  • But who audits the auditors?: Robert Anglen, of the Republic, reports that “a kind of audit of the audit” is taking place on social media, where right-wingers are tracking livestreams and reporting “irregularities” via the messaging app Telegram. “A chat page tied to the official audit efforts has become a virtual hub, with administrators telling ‘patriots’ to say something if they see something,” Anglen writes. “Posters across the country have responded with messages about UV lights, blue pens, fingerprint scans, black-shirted figures near counting tables, ballot handling, half-filled boxes and lagging cameras that could derail efforts to prove the election was rigged.”
  • Fury, Elise: Liz Cheney, the third-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives, is set to be ejected from her leadership role due to her insistence on calling out the Big Lie, and it’s increasingly clear that Elise Stefanik, a New York Republican and vocal Trump booster, will replace her. Yesterday, Stefanik appeared for interviews on right-wing shows hosted by Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, who are both former Trump advisers; she explicitly backed Trump’s “focus on election integrity and election security,” and endorsed the Arizona audit in the name of “transparency.”
  • Maximum peril: Sarah Ellison, Jonathan O’Connell, and Josh Dawsey, of the Post, profile Chris Ruddy, whose pro-Trump network, Newsmax, crested in popularity after giving airtime to the Big Lie—and is now in legal jeopardy because of it. Ruddy, until recently “the most quotable man in Trump’s orbit,” is now “keeping his head down,” the Post reports, “as his company faces the threat of potentially disastrous lawsuits from voting technology companies that claim they were defamed by Newsmax’s copious spewing of baseless election-fraud claims.”
  • “Foxitus”: Yesterday, a lawyer for Anthony Antonio, who is facing charges related to his participation in the insurrection at the Capitol, told a court that Antonio “became hooked with what I call ‘Foxitus’ or ‘Foxmania’” after losing his job during the pandemic and watching the network “constantly.” The lawyer said that Antonio believed lies that were “fed to him” about the election. (CNN’s Hannah Rabinowitz and Marshall Cohen note that many defendants have so far tried to blame Trump for their actions at the Capitol on January 6, “with little legal success.”)


A programming note:
We’re continuing to roll out our latest issue of the magazine, which asks the question “What is journalism?” In an entirely digital project, composed of five chapters, we’re confronting the assumptions we make about our work—so much so that we’ve referred to this as “the Existential Issue.” Today we encourage you to read the introduction by Kyle Pope, the editor and publisher of CJR, and check out Chapter 5: Why Bother? And as a bonus, come by Galley, our discussion platform, for a panel on right-wing media and manipulation, featuring Emily Bell, Haley Mlotek, and other CJR contributors.


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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.