The Media Today

The media’s vital role in safeguarding elections

June 12, 2020

On Tuesday, voters in Georgia went to cast their ballots in primary elections, but many of them found that they could not—or not without a long wait. Voters in the Atlanta area, in particular, faced huge lines and hours-long delays outside polling places; a disproportionate number of those voters were Black. As the day progressed, reports emerged about new voting machines that were malfunctioning or missing altogether. Public-health measures, instituted to prevent voters from spreading COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, exacerbated the delays. There were problems with mail-in ballots, too. Democratic politicians blamed the state’s Republican leadership for the mess; the Republicans blamed local Democrats. “There are no clear answers of exactly one thing that caused the breakdown,” Tia Mitchell, a reporter with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, said on The Takeaway. “There are probably many.”

The confusion didn’t stop news organizations from prominently covering the problems. The New York Times used drone footage to demonstrate just how long the lines were. Politico ran the headline, “A hot, flaming mess”; on Wednesday, the Journal-Constitution’s front page splashed the words, “COMPLETE MELTDOWN.” News networks cut to reporters on the ground; one of them, Blayne Alexander, of NBC News, said she had waited in line for 2 hours and 19 minutes before casting her vote. Many stories noted Georgia’s history of voter suppression, and suggested that the debacle was a poor omen for November, when the state is expected to be in play in the presidential election, and voter turnout in the state could be more than twice what we saw on Tuesday. “If those same issues are to happen again,” Mitchell said, “the lines will be even longer, the waits will be even longer, the possibility of disenfranchisement of voters will be even higher.” It’s not just Georgia, of course—people of color, in particular, are used to experiencing voter suppression nationwide. Throw in the problems of rampant disinformation about electoral processes, which is often targeted specifically at Black voters; foreign meddling; creaking electoral infrastructure; and a pandemic that makes it unsafe to go outside, and the integrity of the upcoming presidential race is in serious jeopardy.

ICYMI: The mystery of Tucker Carlson

The widespread and enduring coverage of the Georgia primary—amid everything else going on right now—was welcome. But the media as a whole must do even more to draw attention to voter suppression; specifically, our coverage needs to be less reactive to outrages such as Tuesday’s, and more anticipatory of what’s to come. In April, Brian Friedberg, Gabrielle Lim, and Joan Donovan, researchers at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, warned, in an essay for Nieman Reports, that “the coming year may be witness to the largest challenge to voting rights since the civil rights era, and failures in the media ecosystem may intensify its impact.” The pandemic has forced changes to voting procedures, making it easier than ever for bad actors online—including the president of the United States—to sow confusion and mistrust around electoral mechanics. Journalists, Friedberg, Lim, and Donovan wrote, must urgently fight back—by confronting Republican misinformation about voting-by-mail, telling important stories about voting beyond the clamor of the news cycle, and forging ties with civil rights groups. This week, Jay Rosen, a media professor at New York University, suggested on Twitter that newsrooms should immediately assign “threat modeling teams” to assess possible risks facing the integrity of the vote, so editors know ahead of time where to funnel editorial resources. Rosen added, “This election is in peril.”

In addition to disenfranchisement, news organizations must also think now about how they communicate election results. In April, a panel of experts led by Rick Hasen, an election-law specialist at the University of California, Irvine, published recommendations for how institutions in the fields of law, politics, tech, and the media might ensure public confidence come November. News organizations, the report advised, should launch campaigns to educate the public about how votes are cast and counted, and should train their journalists to “appropriately set expectations” ahead of election night, in order to minimize the traction of dubious voter-fraud narratives as the results come in. “It is especially important for the media to convey to the public the idea that, given an expected increase in absentee ballot voting… delays in election reporting are to be expected, not evidence of fraud,” the report states. “The 2020 presidential election may be ‘too early to call’ until days after election day.” This, of course, will cut against the normal rhythms of political news, which are ill-equipped to handle prolonged uncertainty. (Exhibit A: the excruciating dead air on cable following this year’s messed-up Democratic primary in Iowa.)

There’s so much news to react to at the moment, but getting ahead of the election-integrity story should still be a priority for journalists—after all, the protests and the pandemic come to bear on voting. And we can’t do it alone. As Friedberg, Lim, and Donovan wrote for Nieman Reports, covering the election threat “will require the collaboration of civil society, state agencies, social media companies, and news organizations.” That’s a weird role for journalists, who are more accustomed to scrutinizing other institutions. We need to figure out what it entails, and fast.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Below, more on election threats:

  • Voter suppression: In April, thousands of voters in Wisconsin were disenfranchised after the US Supreme Court, siding with Republican officials in the state, blocked Democrats from extending the deadline for mail-in ballots. And this week, Republican lawmakers in Iowa voted to bar that state from sending absentee ballots to voters who didn’t request one in writing; the lawmakers said they were prioritizing election “security” even though Iowa held successful elections under the existing system just the week before. In an editorial, the Des Moines Register accused the lawmakers of voter suppression.
  • Manipulation machines: For CJR’s Fall 2019 magazine on disinformation, Errin Haines explored how online disinformation campaigns have been weaponized against the Black vote. “Propaganda aimed at suppressing the Black vote is not new, of course, but social media has transformed its nature and scale,” Haines wrote. In 2016, Russian trolls “identified as ‘assets’ people whose trust in Black media could be exploited to share manufactured disinformation on their own accounts.”
  • More Than a Vote: In response to the protests that have followed George Floyd’s murder, a group of Black athletes and celebrities—including LeBron James, Trae Young, and Skylar Diggins-Smith—is founding More Than a Vote, an organization that will aim to increase Black voter turnout. James told the Times that he plans to use his high media profile to draw attention to voter suppression efforts.

Other notable stories:

  • In Seattle, protesters have occupied the area around a police department and declared it an “autonomous zone.” Trump has declared the occupiers “domestic terrorists,” and the story has driven an outrage cycle in right-wing media; as CNN’s Oliver Darcy reports, Fox News personalities and sites such as Breitbart and the Gateway Pundit are claiming (without evidence) that Seattle has been colonized by Antifa. Trump and his right-wing media allies have repeatedly blamed Antifa for fomenting violence after a cop killed George Floyd. So far, credible outlets have found scant evidence to support such claims.
  • In other politics news, Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he regretted participating in the photo op Trump held last week, when militarized police used tear gas to clear protesters from a park outside the White House. Milley conceded that his presence stoked a perception of military meddling in domestic politics. Next Friday, on Juneteenth, the anniversary of emancipation from slavery, Trump will hold a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which was the site of a 1921 race massacre. His campaign is asking attendees to agree not to sue Trump should they contract COVID-19 at the rally. And the administration says it won’t disclose which businesses received money under its coronavirus bailout program, calling such information “proprietary.” (In April, Mya Frazier reported for CJR on the lack of transparency around the bailout.)
  • CNN’s Kerry Flynn profiles Refinery29, whose editor in chief, Christene Barberich, quit this week after current and former staffers wrote on Twitter that the working environment was toxic and beset by racism. “Sources who spoke to CNN Business said there was a glaring lack of diversity at the company,” Flynn reports. “Some said that despite the inclusive image that the site tried to present, Barberich made a number of editorial decisions that had the effect of diminishing minority and especially black women.”
  • For CJR, Anya Schiffrin profiles The Conversation, a nonprofit publication that aims to bring academic writing to a general audience, and is thriving during the pandemic. “Traffic is soaring, while its funding model insulates it from the collapse in advertising and subscription revenue hitting other outlets,” Schiffrin writes. The Conversation’s funding sources include reader donations, foundation funding, and universities.
  • The NBA is planning to restart its season by sequestering players and officials for at least three-and-a-half months in a sealed “bubble” at Disney World, in Orlando. Robert Silverman reports, for the Daily Beast, that a group of reporters might have to sequester with them, in order to have direct access to players. The plan has yet to be finalized; if it goes ahead, many outlets will likely decline to send a reporter, on cost grounds.
  • The Post’s Sarah Ellison scored a rare interview with Heath Freeman, whose hedge fund, Alden Global Capital, has become infamous for cutting local newspapers to the bone. He told Ellison, “I would love our team to be remembered as the team that saved the newspaper business.” Dean Singleton, who co-founded the media group through which Alden makes acquisitions, dismissed that characterization. “I don’t think any idiot would buy that,” he said.
  • Chris Cox, who quit as Facebook’s head of product last year, is returning to the role. Cox “championed a push within Facebook to examine its culpability in spreading misinformation and divisive content in the years before he left, work that the company deprioritized,” the Journal’s Jeff Horwitz writes. His return could help placate staffers who have recently spoken out against Facebook’s hands-off approach to political speech.
  • Last week, Audrey Cooper, the editor in chief of the San Francisco Chronicle, announced her departure from the paper for an unspecified new role in journalism. Yesterday, WNYC announced that Cooper will be its new editor in chief, with oversight of the station’s entire range of local-news programming.
  • And Garrison Courtney—a former TV reporter and TMZ producer who also served as a top spokesperson for the Drug Enforcement Administration—pleaded guilty to charges that he impersonated an undercover CIA agent to cheat government contractors out of millions of dollars. Politico’s Josh Gerstein has more wild details.

ICYMI: The Story Has Gotten Away from Us

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.