The Media Today

Georgia, voter suppression, and big lies, plural

March 29, 2021

Last Thursday, Republicans in Georgia passed a law imposing restrictions on voting in the state, including new ID requirements for absentee voting (replacing a signature-matching process), a reduction in the number of absentee-ballot drop boxes (compared to 2020), greater powers for the state legislature over local election officials, and even the criminalization, in some cases, of the distribution of food and water to voters standing in line outside polling places. The changes will disproportionately impede Black voters. Governor Brian Kemp signed the law in private and beneath a painting of a plantation; outside, Park Cannon, a Black state lawmaker, was arrested for knocking on the door. Georgia’s Democratic US Senator Raphael Warnock, who visited Cannon in jail, condemned her treatment at a press availability; he started to walk away, but turned as a reporter shouted a question about the effect the new law might have on Democrats’ discussions about removing the filibuster that, at present, is impeding their efforts to legislate national-level voting protections. Warnock stressed that Republicans are the bigger impediment. “Folks keep asking what we are going to do about the filibuster,” he said. “I think they ought to ask my colleagues on the other side of the aisle: what are they going to do about voting rights?”

Questions about the Senate filibuster are legitimate. And the Georgia law is complicated; not all of its provisions are restrictive, and some of the restrictions could easily have been even worse. (Stephen Fowler, of Georgia Public Broadcasting, has the most thorough breakdown that I’ve seen.) As Media Matters for America’s Eric Kleefeld has noted, however, “the fact that a less extreme bill passed is not simply a non-story if it followed weeks of controversy and efforts to prevent something even worse”—and, more broadly, the law ought to be covered less through a lens of “partisan politics,” and more as a “civil rights issue.” Much coverage has hit the latter mark, but a number of stories have used the former frame, with complaints like Warnock’s at the thin end of the wedge. On Friday, Politico’s Playbook newsletter headlined the Georgia news with the caption, “YOUR MOVE, DEMOCRATS”; yesterday, some of the Sunday shows bothsidesily referenced the “fight” or “battle over” (not for) “voting rights” in Georgia, and the “dueling reactions” to the law. On Meet the Press, Republican Senator Pat Toomey attacked Democrats for “a completely false narrative about so-called voter suppression” in Georgia, and asserted that the new law “has nothing to do with race.” Rather than interrogate that language, specifically, Chuck Todd asked whether such laws were a “good look” for Republicans.

New from CJR: It’s time to rethink how journalism covers guns and mass shootings

It’s not just Georgia—there’s vital broader context here. As of last month, the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU had counted more than two hundred and fifty bills, across forty-three states, that would make voting harder, mostly by restricting mail-in voting and imposing tougher voter-ID laws; a Washington Post analysis of these bills concluded that they could lead to “the most sweeping contraction of ballot access in the United States since the end of Reconstruction, when Southern states curtailed the voting rights of formerly enslaved Black men.” Lawmakers in Iowa (where Republicans did well in November) recently voted to curtail early and absentee voting, and to close polls earlier; one bill in Arizona even proposed allowing the state legislature to override the will of voters in presidential elections. The greater the number of such restrictions one considers, the more coverage organized around the competing claims of political “sides” looks less like a lazy endrun around engaging with the complex specifics of a given bill, and more like a systemic media failure to truthfully characterize a broad, urgent threat to democracy. As the election lawyer Marc Elias, who is now involved with challenges to the Georgia restrictions, told CNN’s Brian Stelter recently, “reporters are uncomfortable treating one side as correct and one side as wrong on topics that they see as fundamentally about politics.”

The why of the restrictive voting bills is also vital, arguably as much so as the what. Republicans across the country have pitched new laws as correctives to public fears about election “integrity”—even though such fears were, for the most part, simply made up by Donald Trump and his enablers in the right-wing political and media firmament. Denizens of the reality-based press have often pushed back strongly against the deranged letter of Trump’s “big lie”—but we have, on the whole, arguably been less consistent in characterizing just how rare electoral fraud is (“no widespread voter fraud,” a phrase that can regularly be heard in interviews with Republican politicians, is perhaps not specific enough), and in tracking the big lie’s ongoing impact, including in state-level voter suppression efforts. It is, perhaps, most useful at this point to conceive of the work of covering voting and elections as fighting multiple big lies, rather than just the one. As the NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen put it over the weekend, so many Republican voters now believe the lie that “the election was stolen!” that “a second order lie” is required to persuade them to keep voting: “we fixed it with new laws.”

The original big lie continues—even in its time-limited, post-election sense—to have direct relevance for the press. Coverage of the insurrection continues apace. And, on the right, actors caught up in the lie are continuing to seek accountability. On Friday, Dominion Voting Systems, an election-tech company at the heart of Trumpworld’s fraud smears, sued Fox News over remarks made on its air, alleging that hosts on the network platformed and amplified blatant lies. The Dominion suit follows a similar defamation action filed against Fox and three of its hosts—one of whom, Lou Dobbs, has since been let go by Fox Business—by another voting-tech company, Smartmatic. Fox, which already asked a court to dismiss the Smartmatic case, pledged to “vigorously” oppose the Dominion suit, too, calling it “baseless,” and arguing (yes, really) that Fox’s election coverage stood “in the highest tradition of American journalism.”

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In addition to asserting basic newsworthiness, Fox, the New York Times reports, has argued that its election coverage “should be viewed in its totality, pointing out that at least one host, Tucker Carlson, voiced skepticism” about the fraud lies of Trump’s lawyers. The legal merit of such defenses has yet to be seen, but, as I wrote in November, any pushback by Carlson and others does not earn Fox much moral credit, since the only media standard for election denialism must be zero tolerance. The same standard should apply, going forward, to the “second-order” lies around voting laws that erode democracy, including by making it harder for Black Americans to cast their ballots; there’s little point in debunking Trump’s big lie if we don’t follow through with similarly sharp scrutiny of the restrictions being imposed in its name. That’s not to say we should abandon nuance or detail in covering these laws, of course. It’s to reject the facile partisan framing that itself has become a dubious high tradition of American journalism.

Below, more on voting:

  • Bridging gaps: Recently, CJR’s Lauren Harris profiled Votebeat, a nonprofit newsroom that was recently established “to cover voting rights and election administration beyond election cycles.” Votebeat, Harris writes, “sees America facing two big problems when it comes to local voting coverage: either newsrooms are neglecting election coverage, or they don’t have enough reporters to cover the beat.” It aims to address these problems via “partnerships with local newsrooms or establishment of their own local offices.”
  • A local reaction: In an editorial, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote that Georgia Republicans’ “cynical actions” put them “firmly on the wrong side of history”: “We’ve said it before here; and lawmakers’ actions necessitate saying it again. There was no voting fraud or related shenanigans of a magnitude that would have affected the outcome of the November elections—or the January US Senate runoff. Lawsuits and other claims shakily asserting otherwise were quickly cast aside by the work of due process.” The paper’s editorial board also predicted that “rather than stomping into oblivion voter-engagement activity,” GOP supporters of the law have likely emboldened it.
  • The Dominion perspective: On Stelter’s show, Reliable Sources, yesterday, he interviewed Stephen Shackelford, a lawyer for Dominion, about the company’s Fox suit. “Our complaint lays out in gory detail [that] over days, and days, and weeks in November and December of last year, Fox kept spouting these lies about Dominion… even while they were being told the truth over and over again,” Shackelford said, referring both to letters from Dominion itself, and to a “chorus of bipartisan officials” in the country.

News from the home front:
On April 6, CJR and Columbia’s Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma will convene a virtual summit—with media participants including the Times, The Guardian, and The Trace—dedicated to rethinking the media’s approach to covering guns and shootings in America. You can sign up for the summit here. In the meantime, we’ve placed news boxes around New York City containing newspapers headlined The Inevitable News. The papers, our editor and publisher, Kyle Pope, explains, “are fourteen pages of fill-in-the-blanks news stories, featuring details from a selection of mass shootings since the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Each article is identical; only the victims’ names and locations are changed.” You can read more about the initiative here.

Other notable stories:

  • On Friday, Vanity Fair’s Charlotte Klein wrote about how “next-level” online harassment of female journalists is testing newsrooms; among others, the story quoted Steven Ginsberg, a Washington Post editor who publicly backed a Post reporter, Seung Min Kim, who faced a recent torrent of abuse. Afterward, Felicia Sonmez, another Post reporter, wrote on Twitter that Ginsberg had failed to similarly support her last year, when she was harassed online after drawing attention to a rape allegation against Kobe Bryant in the wake of his death; instead, the Post suspended her. Sonmez, who has spoken often about being a survivor of sexual assault, revealed that the Post has barred her from covering sexual violence. Politico’s Rachael Bade has more details of the ban.
  • Also on Friday, Hemal Jhaveri, a former race and inclusion editor at USA Today, wrote on Medium that the paper fired her after right-wing trolls seized on an inaccurate tweet that she posted about the ethnicity of the Boulder mass shooter, and accused Jhaveri of anti-white racism. “There is always the threat that tweets which challenge white supremacy will be weaponized by bad faith actors,” Jhaveri wrote. “I had always hoped that when that moment inevitably came, USA Today would stand by me and my track record of speaking the truth about systemic racism. That, obviously, did not happen.”
  • Last week, New York Public Radio released a “Race Equity Action Plan” that lists nineteen commitments aimed at “building a more diverse and inclusive workplace.” The commitments include regular listening sessions; hiring BIPOC candidates into sixty percent of open roles; retaining BIPOC staff at a higher rate; and formalizing NYPR’s Source Project, “an ongoing initiative to track the demographics of guests and sources.”
  • Unionized staffers at the New Yorker, Pitchfork, and Ars Technica voted to authorize strike action should the publications’ owner, Condé Nast, continue to block demands around remuneration and other workplace issues. Natalie Meade, who chairs the New Yorker’s union, told the Daily Beast’s Maxwell Tani that the ball is now in Condé’s court. On Saturday, the unions held a solidarity rally outside the company’s New York offices.
  • There’s been another twist in the Tribune story, with Hansjörg Wyss, a Wyoming-based Swiss billionaire who led a medical-devices company, telling the Times that he has joined with Stewart Bainum, Jr., a Maryland hotel magnate, in a bid to stop Alden Global Capital, a cost-slashing hedge fund, from acquiring the newspaper chain. Wyss says he would retain the Chicago Tribune and seek civic-minded owners for other Tribune titles.
  • In his Times column, Ben Smith profiles Harper’s, which he calls “the weirdest place to work in New York media and yet an unexpectedly excellent magazine that stands out in part because of its wide range, in style and substance, amid a homogenizing media landscape.” Among other nuggets, Smith reports that the magazine’s bosses have forced staff back to the office amid the pandemic, leading to “a kind of hostage situation.”
  • In the UK, police in Bristol physically assaulted Matthew Dresch, a reporter with the Daily Mirror, a left-of-center tabloid, while he was covering protests against a government bill that would expand police powers over peaceful demonstrations. In a video that Dresch posted to Twitter, he can clearly be heard identifying himself as press. “I was respectfully observing what was happening and posed no threat to any of the officers,” he wrote.
  • In Brazil, a court ordered President Jair Bolsonaro to pay damages to Patrícia Campos Mello, a reporter with the Folha de S.Paulo newspaper, after Bolsonaro insinuated that she offered to sleep with a source in exchange for information. Bolsonaro’s son, Eduardo, made similar remarks, and was previously also ordered to pay damages to Campos Mello. Bolsonaro has a long history of attacking reporters, as I wrote in 2019.
  • And Gail Slatter, a former news assistant at the Times, has died after contracting COVID. She was sixty-eight. Slatter “never received a byline or a photo credit,” the Times’s Sam Roberts writes. “But her unassuming job title belied the significant impact she had on what appeared in the paper and on the daily lives of her colleagues, particularly on the culture and photo desks. She was a guide, gatekeeper and guardian.”

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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.