The Media Today

Whatever happens in the election, we mustn’t forget about all the voter suppression

November 2, 2020

On Friday, Bloomberg’s Tyler Pager reported that senior officials on Joe Biden’s presidential campaign have been worrying about inadequate early Black and Latino turnout in states including Florida and Pennsylvania. Pager’s story was nuanced, and largely focused on strategy disputes between Biden staffers of color and campaign leadership—but online, the headline, with its talk of “warning signs,” drove liberal anxiety, and shifted numerous political journalists even closer to the edges of their seats. (“This seems disastrous for Biden,” The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer noted; “We’re gonna die,” The Nation’s Elie Mystal tweeted.) Other observers offered a greater degree of skepticism about the meaning of the topline premise. “This could be a sign of something or nothing,” Astead W. Herndon, of the New York Times, wrote, “but I do think people have been conditioned to think of successful Democratic coalitions as Obamalike while every measure has shown Biden was building something different (read: whiter).” Some speculated that the Biden campaign may be seeding panic in a bid to stave off volunteers’ complacency.

The discussion around the story—which flooded my Twitter timeline, then dissipated just as quickly—was consistent with a more general trend that I explored recently: Democrats are terrified of 2016 redux, media prognosticators are on edge about the same thing, and we’re all anxiously prospecting for pre-election clues. We’ve heard about yard signs again (though perhaps not as much as in cycles past.) The Times reported that Trump is handily winning on the Yiwu Index—a measure, named for a Chinese city that contains the world’s largest wholesale market, of global demand for candidate merch. (The paper called the index “unscientific at best” under the headline, “Forget the Polls: This Chinese Indicator Is Flashing ‘Trump.’”) Over the weekend, election-watchers chewed over a bevy of late polls—perhaps none more so than data out of Iowa, collected by the revered local pollster J. Ann Selzer, that showed Trump with a seven-point lead in the state, the same margin that Selzer recorded in her final 2016 poll. CNN data whizz Harry Enten said that the Selzer poll caused his phone to blow up; his Times counterpart Nate Cohn wrote that the finding had “every poll junkie buzzing,” though he urged readers to put it in perspective: the Selzer poll is “the gold standard of the gold standard,” he wrote, but “no pollster can defy the inherent limits of a random sample of 800 voters.” (The drama was a throwback to early February, a million news cycles ago, when Selzer canceled her final poll ahead of the Iowa Democratic caucus due to a possible glitch.)

New from CJR: Nigeria’s #EndSARS Movement and Media Suppression

The parsing and counter-parsing of minutiae is perfectly understandable. But it stands in stark contrast to the state of a race that remains, for the most part, remarkably stable heading into its final stretch, and a news cycle that, in spite—or perhaps because—of its epic, frenzied saturation has not thrown up a late, race-defining twist for reporters and pundits to hype. “There just hasn’t been any real sign that the race is tightening,” FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver wrote on Saturday. “And there isn’t any particular reason to expect the race to tighten when more than ninety million people have already voted and the most important news story—that the United States just set a record for the number of COVID-19 cases in a day—is a negative one for Trump.” That doesn’t mean that Trump can’t win—he very much can. In the absence of actual results, though, it feels like many of us are jumping at shadows and chasing our tails.

Not that anxiety about other facets of the election isn’t justified. Also on Saturday, Silver advised, on Twitter, that it’s “a good night to have a glass of wine or whatever and chill out about the polls,” and some journalists pushed back: “the issue isn’t polls,” Parker Molloy, of the liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America, tweeted, “the issue is that there’s a very clear, obvious effort by Republicans to prevent people from voting/to throw out ballots that have been cast/etc.” These efforts have proven a great source of pre-election concern, and rightly so—even if, as I wrote recently, such fears have often felt disconnected from horserace coverage, much of which has fretted over polls while assuming the levelness of the electoral playing field. That assumption has never been true, and in recent weeks, a slew of dirty tricks, lawsuits, and lies has made it look shakier than ever; Republicans in Texas, for example, are asking a (very conservative) federal judge to throw out well over 100,000 votes that were already legally cast in Harris County, a good area for Democrats. (Yesterday, the Texas Supreme Court threw out a similar request; a hearing in the federal case is slated for today.) The threat of voter intimidation has repeatedly reared its head, too. On Friday, and also in Texas, a fleet of Trump supporters surrounded a Biden campaign bus with their vehicles. The FBI is investigating the incident. When Abby Livingston, a reporter with the Texas Tribune, reached out to the Texas Republican Party for comment, it posted a deranged response online. (“Maybe Soros can cut y’all another check in 2022.”)

As Silver and others have noted, the weight and representativeness of such chicanery is hard to precisely measure, and so models like FiveThirtyEight’s don’t account for it. (Silver argued in a column yesterday that more attention is paid to voter suppression now than in the past, which is a good thing, but can risk obscuring that many states have actually expanded voting rights of late.) Voter suppression isn’t new, and in an age of social media and twenty-four-hour news—and amid a ceaseless torrent of genuine outrages—it can be hard to always maintain a sense of proportion around individual incidents. There’s no question, though, that this time, the threat is coming from the very top: Trump and his surrogates have repeatedly and baselessly questioned the integrity of the election, lied about the prevalence of voter fraud, and incited fans of the president to “monitor” the polls. Last night, the president defended his supporters who surrounded the Biden bus as “patriots” who “did nothing wrong.” Also last night, Jonathan Swan, of Axios, reported that Trump may “declare” victory before all the votes have been counted if it looks advantageous for him to do so. (Trump later denied Swan’s reporting.)  

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Trump’s rhetoric, attempts at voter intimidation, and individual lawsuits seeking to disqualify legitimate votes are all part of a systematic voter-suppression plot that demands our unstinting vigilance, now more than ever. As the Harvard professor Yochai Benkler recently wrote for CJR, mainstream news outlets—and their impulse to “fairly” cover both sides of a given story—have abetted Trump’s disinformation campaign about the integrity of the election, by amplifying his talking points and casting them as a matter of partisan dispute. As the election has grown nearer, Benkler found, mainstream outlets have more consistently called out Trump’s lies. But even now, at this late hour, familiar framing errors persist in some quarters. Major newspapers continue to use inadequate language (his “best hope”) to describe Trump’s plan to undermine legitimately-cast votes. Legal decisions in voting cases are routinely cast as wins “for Democrats” or “for Republicans” when nothing less than the scope of the franchise is at issue. On the Sunday shows yesterday, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos failed to call out Trump campaign adviser Jason Miller’s claim that Democrats plan to “steal” the result by (*checks notes*) counting votes after election night. On CBS, Margaret Brennan said that Biden and Trump “have both said things that have raised concerns” about election integrity. (Nope.)

More broadly, a narrative seems to have taken hold—including implicitly—that Biden needs to win big and win early (including in states, such as Florida, that may report substantial results on election night) to avoid the trap Trump has set. That may be the case. But we mustn’t in any way normalize this state of affairs—as MSNBC’s Chris Hayes put it on his show last week, all Democrats should need to do to win is get more votes than the Republicans in enough states, whenever the final tallies are finalized. Whatever happens—if the last-minute polling anxiety proves prescient, but perhaps especially if it proves unfounded and Biden wins comfortably—we mustn’t forget what Trump and his allies did to try and distort the playing field, and we mustn’t write it off as so much unfounded worry. Every suppressed vote is a disgrace; a national political strategy blatantly centered around suppression is deeply dangerous, even if its dangers don’t all play out this time. Trump and other Republican leaders have proved that attacking institutions can undermine trust in them in a long-term way. The media can attest to that. Wherever we are this time next week or next year, we need to prioritize mending that trust. Some of us still seem to prefer refereeing an unfair fight.

Below, more on the election:

  • A reporter arrested: On Saturday, sheriff’s deputies and police in Alamance County, North Carolina, pepper-sprayed participants—including young children—in a march to the polls, the Raleigh News & Observer reports. Law enforcement made numerous arrests, including that of Tomas Murawski, a reporter with the Alamance News. Officers charge that Murawski, who was photographing the event, resisted their instructions, but Murawski denies this, and video of the incident seems to support his account.
  • What’s next?: Ben Smith, media columnist at the Times, argues that the election marks “the end of an era” for the media, regardless of who wins—for one thing, top editors and executives at major outlets look likely to retire, and their successors will have to reckon with strong recent challenges to the “old top-down newsroom management” model. In a similar vein, Joe Pompeo reports, for Vanity Fair, that some of the biggest names on the White House beat are burned out, and could rotate out of the press corps should Trump win again. And Gabriel Snyder, CJR’s public editor for the Times, writes that whoever wins the election, the paper “must find new ways to speak in terms of what it believes. Its inability to explain itself to others is its biggest institutional challenge.”
  • Misinformation: For Slate, Shannon C. McGregor and Daniel Kreiss argue that Americans are too worried about the threat of dis- and misinformation in politics. “There is little evidence to suggest that misinformation has had large direct effects on voter’s attitudes or behaviors,” they write. “Instead, researchers and journalists could have been examining the more important things contributing to political outcomes and polarization, such as race, ethnicity, gender, and religion.”
  • Endorsement watch: Over the weekend, the editorial board of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette endorsed Trump—the first time it has backed a Republican candidate for president since 1972. Trump allies touted the paper’s liberal bona fides—but the paper’s editorial pages have repeatedly courted controversy in recent times, including by running an unsigned editorial likening charges of racism to McCarthyism, and by firing Rob Rogers, an editorial cartoonist whose anti-Trump drawings were spiked by the paper. (ICYMI, I examined the fortunes of the newspaper endorsement last week.)
  • An enlightening conversation: Late last week, Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, discussed the election, Trump coverage, Leonard Cohen, and much more with David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, on our podcast, The Kicker. You can listen here.


Other notable stories:

  • On Friday, the US recorded nearly 100,000 new confirmed cases of COVID-19—a new daily record not just for the US but for any country. The same day, Dr. Anthony Fauci offered a bleak assessment of the recent viral surge in an interview with the Post, warning that the US “could not possibly be positioned more poorly.” He also praised the Biden campaign for taking the virus seriously; afterward, a White House spokesperson accused Fauci of “breaking with all norms” by “playing politics.” Meanwhile, Scott Atlas, a controversial Trump adviser who has sidelined Fauci, downplayed the surge in an interview with the Russian state-backed outlet RT. Atlas later said that he didn’t know RT was a foreign agent, and apologized for “allowing myself to be taken advantage of.”
  • In its November issue, The Atlantic published a story, by Ruth S. Barrett, on “the mad, mad world of niche sports among Ivy League-obsessed parents.” Erik Wemple, a media writer at the Post, subsequently reported that “Ruth S. Barrett” is the married name of Ruth Shalit—a writer who was busted for plagiarism and other journalistic malpractice, in the nineties—then pointed out some glaring holes in her new Atlantic story. The Atlantic appended a lengthy editor’s note to the story acknowledging grave errors—including a fabrication related to a source’s family—and accepting that it had shown “poor judgment” in giving Shalit “a second chance.” Yesterday, the story was retracted in its entirety.
  • The fallout continues from Glenn Greenwald’s resignation from The Intercept last week. New York’s Peter Sterne and the Daily Beast’s Maxwell Tani both have interesting pieces exploring Greenwald’s history of feuding with his colleagues and the inevitability of his exit; staffers at the site told Tani that they rolled their eyes at Greenwald’s claim that he’d been censored, and suggested that it may have been a “publicity stunt” for his new venture on Substack. And Jeremy Scahill, who cofounded The Intercept with Greenwald, published a note defending his colleagues against Greenwald’s “unjust” attacks.
  • For CJR and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Priyanjana Bengani and Ian Karbal reviewed fact-checking labels assigned by Facebook and Instagram in the first five days of October, and found that the platforms “failed to consistently label content flagged by… third-party partners.” Bengani and Karbal identified over 1,100 posts containing debunked falsehoods. Fewer than fifty percent of them carried fact-checking labels.
  • Satchel Walton and Cooper Walton of Manual RedEye, a high-school publication in Louisville, obtained a slideshow in which Kentucky State Police instructors encouraged cadets to be “ruthless killers,” and quoted Adolf Hitler three times. (State officials said that the slideshow has not been used since 2013.) Local politicians strongly condemned the document, and one police-misconduct lawyer likened it to “something out of Borat.”
  • For CJR, Ankush Khardori, a former Justice Department prosecutor who left the government after disclosing internal misconduct, writes that sloppy media coverage of whistleblowers can disincentivize others from speaking out. “It’s incumbent on editors to ensure that their reporters are given the time and freedom to cover subsequent developments just as thoroughly as initial disclosures of potential misconduct,” he writes. 
  • Over the weekend, Côte d’Ivoire held elections that opposition leaders boycotted on the grounds that Alassane Ouattara, the incumbent president who is seeking reelection, is term-limited, and should stand aside. Ahead of the vote, improvised election analysts known as titrologues gathered around newspaper kiosks to debate the headlines of the day. Camille Millerand captured such scenes in a photo essay for Le Monde.
  • Jeffrey Gettleman, New Delhi bureau chief at the Times, pays tribute to P.J. Anthony, the paper’s long-serving former New Delhi bureau manager who died recently after contracting COVID-19. Anthony “was a bookkeeper, a translator, a guide, an archivist, a newshound who could track ten stories at once, and a beloved and indispensable friend to many correspondents and their families,” Gettleman writes.
  • And Robert Fisk—a prolific, controversial foreign correspondent who covered conflict from Northern Ireland to the Middle East for British newspapers including The Times and The Independent, and interviewed Osama bin Laden several times—has died. He was seventy-four. The Independent called Fisk “the most celebrated journalist of his era.”

ICYMI: How foreign correspondents have covered the protests and the election

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.