How triumphant media coverage fell into the Arizona ‘fraudit’ trap

In May, CNN’s Kyung Lah cornered Karen Fann, the Republican president of Arizona’s Senate, in a parking lot. Fann had recently commissioned a bogus “audit”—since more accurately dubbed a “fraudit”—of the 2020 presidential election results in Maricopa County, where Joe Biden won and Trump lied about having won, and Lah wanted to ask her about it. CNN said that Fann had declined a dozen interview requests; when Lah finally pinned her down, Fann repeatedly insisted that the fraudit was nothing more than a good-faith response to voters’ concerns about “election integrity.” Lah put it to Fann that the process was actually “raising more questions” by indulging “conspiracy theories” about the election; Fann replied that she was “answering questions,” then tried to turn the interview back on Lah, asking if she could say with confidence that no dead people voted. Lah pointed to data showing that there was no widespread fraud. “I didn’t say there was fraud,” Fann retorted. Later, Fann touted the “transparency” of the process, which was streamed live online. When Lah pointed out that the cameras were controlled by One America News, a pro-Trump network, Fann asked if she was saying that “OAN is not a credible news source.” Lah looked incredulous. “Yes,” she said.

Fann’s remarks were characteristic of what was already a clownish process: Republican lawmakers contracted a Florida-based firm called Cyber Ninjas to run it; at one point, the “auditors” checked ballots for traces of bamboo that might have “proven” they were flown in from Asia. The “results” were repeatedly delayed, first by high-school graduations at the fraudit venue, then, last month, by a COVID outbreak among Cyber Ninjas’ top staffers. On Friday, we finally saw their report—and it concluded not only that Biden won Maricopa County after all, but that he did so by a slightly wider margin than was recorded by the official results. A slew of major news organizations seized on these findings, splashing in headlines that the process had “confirmed” Biden’s victory; so, too, did many liberal commentators, who celebrated the votes-to-Biden discrepancy with particular relish. The New York Times characterized the outcome as a “humiliation” for election deniers; on CNN, John King called it a “death blow” to Trump’s “fraud fantasy,” while Jake Tapper said that the fraudit had “ignominiously backfired.” On MSNBC, Joe Scarborough likened the process to a bank robbery that ends with the robbers saying, “We’ve done an audit, and you’re actually, like, ten thousand dollars short, so we’re giving you ten thousand dollars.” At the top of her show, Rachel Maddow asked viewers if they were “familiar with the concept of an ‘own goal,’” then played some examples from soccer to illustrate her point.

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Not every observer reacted triumphantly to the news, however. Greg Sargent, a columnist at the Washington Post, took news outlets to task for using the word “confirm” in their coverage since it “implies that the audit was about empirical verification of the outcome” when it “was actually about undercutting the legitimacy of a Dem victory”; the report, Sargent argued, wasn’t intended to restore faith in the electoral system but to further undermine it—making reference to nonexistent problems with the count in Arizona that state lawmakers could use as justification to pass laws that would restrict future voting. Other commentators also took issue with journalists’ use of “confirm,” along with other words—“audit,” “review,” “examination”—that gave the process a gloss of legitimacy. Marc Elias, an election lawyer, criticized NPR for a headline (since changed) that called the process “controversial”; Geoffrey Skelley, an elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight, proposed a better framing: “Partisan Effort To Cast Doubt On Biden’s Victory Succeeds Despite Finding Zero Evidence Of Election Malfeasance.” Will Bunch, a columnist at the Philadelphia Inquirer, agreed. “The cackling on left-leaning Twitter and MSNBC Friday night could be heard from Key West to Kalamazoo,” he wrote, and yet “the outcome of these bogus investigations” matters less to election-denying Republicans than “keeping the plates of baseless accusation spinning.”

Mainstream outlets mostly communicated, across the breadth of their coverage, that the fraudit was a conspiratorial sham that should not be taken seriously. Below the Biden-victory topline, several cable shows accurately situated the process within a broader effort to undermine democracy that demands ongoing vigilance: a guest on Tapper’s program noted that Republicans are less concerned with relitigating 2020 than “pre-litigating” future elections; after speaking of own goals, Maddow said that the “real goal” of the fraudit was likely “to unmoor election results from the fact-based world for Republicans and right-leaning Americans.” Some hosts didn’t even bother with the topline. On CNN, Anderson Cooper introduced the fraudit story by saying that the outcome “hardly mattered”; it “may have been good for an ironic laugh or two,” he added, “but not much more than that, because the so-called Cyber Ninjas who conducted this thing were about as qualified to audit ballots as you or I.” At the top of her MSNBC show, Joy Reid played a laugh track, but immediately clarified that the process was “no laughing matter for our democracy,” adding, “the kooky optics were the point.”

Still, for the most part, the critics were right about the coverage—the fraudit was, ultimately, a trap, and too many journalists fell right into it. If Cyber Ninjas had claimed that Trump actually won Maricopa County, credible news organizations would never have dreamed of reporting that the process “overturned” or “disproved” or “cast doubt on” Biden’s win; by using words like “confirmed” to describe the contrary outcome, they pegged the legitimacy of the process to its result, rather than writing it off as fundamentally illegitimate in and of itself—a framing error that could tie the press in a bind should a similar future scam conclude by asserting a grand conspiracy. The claim that Biden’s vote share increased was a trap on these same terms; by celebrating it as an embarrassment for Republicans, members of the fact-based media risked implicitly indulging their central premise that election tallies can be meaningfully changed by private actors months after the fact. In short—as Bunch, Skelley, and others noted—the fraudit was a victory, not a defeat, for election deniers, who contrived an opportunity to baselessly sow doubt (and get the media to talk about it) and hammer home to their voters that Democratic victories are only legit when we, Republicans, say so. To improve Scarborough’s analogy, the fraudit was actually like robbers counting the bank’s money and telling the bank that, while its books seemed to be in order this time, they found troubling flaws in the bookkeeping process and would recommend that the bank hire the robbers to provide security so that The Wrong Sort Of People can’t take out money they rightfully own in future.

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In avoiding Lah, then giving her the rhetorical runaround, Fann appeared to be obfuscating. But her answers really told us all we should have needed to know about the fraudit: that it was an effort to amplify disinformation under the reasonable-sounding pretext of simply answering questions. That effort is ongoing; Republicans are planning follow-up fraudits in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and certain counties in Texas. Some coverage characterized the latter push as bewildering, since Trump won the state—again betraying a misunderstanding of the relative importance, to Republicans, of results and process. As I’ve written before (and Maddow teased out on Friday), it’s not inherently contradictory to find election denialism both funny and scary; indeed, mockery can be a powerful tool against authoritarianism. But there’s a fine line between that and complacency, and some of the fraudit coverage fell on the wrong side of it.

The threat that the fraudits represent is so grave that it’s not enough to guard against complacency only in big-picture coverage; we must interrogate all our editorial choices, down to the wording of headlines. As Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at NYU, noted in response to Sargent’s column, traditional journalistic practice isn’t well-suited to calling out blatant lies, never mind instances where “not just the statements about them, but the events themselves are false.” Writing about events like the Arizona fraudit is undoubtedly tricky; in the course of writing this column, I found it hard to know how to accurately characterize it, as my wanton use of scare quotes will attest. But the weaponization of seemingly innocuous language is a key hallmark of authoritarianism, and we must at least recognize it if we are to push back on it. As fraudits unfold elsewhere, we will, sadly, have plenty more opportunities to attack the story with a greater sharpness. As Lah said on air Friday, “it may be the clown show packing up here in Arizona, but it is nowhere near being over anywhere in this country.”

Below, more on election denialism and Trumpworld:

  • OAN goal: On Friday, after the Cyber Ninjas report came out, CNN’s Oliver Darcy assessed the reaction in pro-Trump media, which he characterized, overall, as “denial.” Shane Althaus, a host on OAN, “said (with a straight face) that there was ‘no clear indication that the election results in Maricopa County will be overturned.’ But he told the audience that ‘several issues’ with the election were found,” Darcy wrote. “That was the most reality-based reporting on OAN that I saw.” OAN also broadcast the entirety of a presentation that Cyber Ninjas delivered to Arizona’s Senate on Friday. As it unfolded, officials in Maricopa County used an official Twitter account to fact check in real time; at one point, they debunked a Cyber Ninjas claim about a server that connects to the internet by writing “This is not the election system. We shouldn’t have to explain this.”
  • Further reading: On cable news, anchors discussing the fraudit often made reference to an opinion essay that ran in the Post on Thursday in which Robert Kagan, a neocon scholar, warned in stark terms that America’s constitutional crisis “is already here.” (A couple of MSNBC hosts noted that it’s unusual for them to agree with Kagan.) “Today, we are in a time of hope and illusion,” Kagan wrote, with “even the anti-Trump media constantly looking for signs that Trump’s influence might be fading and that drastic measures might not be necessary.” But “the world will look very different in 14 months if, as seems likely, the Republican zombie party wins control of the House” and Trump confirms his candidacy for 2024—developments that would likely precede Trump getting his social-media accounts back, allowing him to “once again dominate news coverage.”
  • Inside the house: Also for the Post, Emma Brown has the story of Tina Peters, the top elections official in Mesa County, Colorado, who has embraced election conspiracy theories. “The events in Mesa County represent an escalation in the attacks on the nation’s voting system, one in which officials who were responsible for election security allegedly took actions that undermined that security in the name of protecting it,” Brown writes. “As baseless claims about election fraud are embraced by broad swaths of the Republican Party, experts fear that people who embrace those claims could be elected or appointed to offices where they oversee voting, potentially posing new security risks.”
  • Re-enter Sandmann: Lin Wood, a pro-Trump lawyer who was involved in the former president’s clownish legal push to overturn election results and has faced sanctions in Michigan as a result, could be in hot water again after former colleagues alleged that he plotted to steal their share of settlements from representing Nicholas Sandmann, a student who sued the Post and CNN for their coverage of an incident involving Sandmann and a Native American man that went viral online. Will Sommer reports, for the Daily Beast, that Wood’s “one-time partners say he wrote the alleged scheme down in a series of late-night emails—documents they now have.” Wood denied wrongdoing and suggested to Sommer that his article was “part of ‘Operation Mockingbird,’” a QAnon-linked conspiracy theory “that holds that the CIA controls media outlets.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: PHOENIX - SEPTEMBER 24: People gather to show support at a watch party regarding the results of the Arizona State Senate report of an audit of the 2020 election at the Arizona State Capitol in Phoenix, Arizona, U.S. on September 24, 2021. Caitlin OHara for The Washington Post via Getty Images ARIZONAREPORT