Last night, three days later than planned, we finally saw a full set of results from the Democratic caucuses in Iowa. Pete Buttigieg was a hair ahead of Bernie Sanders on “state delegate equivalents,” the measure traditionally used to crown a winner, though Sanders beat Buttigieg in terms of votes cast. Both candidates have claimed victory. Yet the credibility of the results is seriously in question: The Upshot, a data team at the New York Times, reported that counts released on Wednesday had been “riddled with inconsistencies and other flaws,” raising doubts as to “whether the public will ever get a completely precise account of the Iowa results.” Some of the vote tallies analyzed by the Times did not add up; in one instance, votes for Sanders and Elizabeth Warren had been mistakenly allocated to Deval Patrick and Tom Steyer, respectively. Last night, the Associated Press—a highly respected resource when it comes to calling elections—apparently gave up on naming a winner: “There is evidence the party has not accurately tabulated some of its results.”
The Iowa caucuses have a history of muddled procedure and contested results—and this year piled on bad blood and epic screw-ups. A new requirement that caucus precincts report popular-vote tallies as well as delegate counts led some results to be misreported. An app that was developed to make sharing results easier malfunctioned. When the problems became evident, Democratic Party officials said little to the press; as the week went on, journalists received mixed messages. Yesterday, Tom Perez, chair of the Democratic National Committee, called for an immediate recanvass of the caucus results, which would involve checking the math that came out of each caucus precinct (not a recount of individual votes). The Iowa Democratic Party pushed back, implying that Perez lacked the authority to make such a request, and that it would only conduct a recanvass should an affected campaign ask for one. Later, in an interview on Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC show, Perez backtracked, insisting that he merely wanted problematic precincts to be checked, not the statewide results. The whole situation, Perez added, is a “major-league failure.”
No disagreements there. Taken together, the mess in Iowa has proved an enormous headache for news organizations, in ways anticipated and not. But after the confusion surrounding the initial delay, reporting helped elucidate what, exactly, went wrong. On Tuesday, a flurry of stories outlined problems with the reporting app—it had not been adequately tested, for efficacy or security, and it contained coding errors—and its makers’ eyebrow-raising ties to the Democratic Party establishment. On Wednesday, Bloomberg was the first to report that, when the app failed, caucus officials were told to use a helpline, and that it was inundated with troll calls from Trump supporters. Yesterday, NBC News found that the helpline number had been posted on 4chan, a fever swamp of online Trumpism. The Upshot alerted the Iowa Democratic Party to the errors its reporters were finding. But the party was slow to issue corrections on some of its numbers.
Still, the media’s performance this week was far from perfect. The Upshot’s live “needle”—notorious from the 2016 presidential election, used in Iowa to predict the final results—created angst, again. The Upshot’s Nate Cohn reported problems with his model’s ability to account for “satellite caucuses,” some of which took place outside of Iowa (in places as far flung as Paris and the country of Georgia), and which came back more strongly than expected for Sanders. (Previously, the needle had Buttigieg as the “very clear favorite.” ) On Twitter, Cohn apologized. “While this was undoubtedly an especially complex caucus to nail,” he wrote, “we undoubtedly did not nail it.” Yesterday, The Upshot froze the needle, because of the irregularities its team had discovered.
The data wonks, at least, were concerned. Purveyors of the horserace model of campaign coverage—on cable news, in particular—were pumped. Rather than refrain from comment in the absence of clear, verified results, pundits resorted to speculation (their go-to). On CNN Monday night, talking heads actively encouraged Democratic candidates (Buttigieg, mainly) to exploit the uncertainty by claiming victory. When the first results came out, late Tuesday, Buttigieg’s delegate lead was breathlessly discussed, even though it was based on a partial picture. Since then, votes counted for Sanders have been reported as an erosion of Buttigieg’s “lead.”
Reporting on elections is hard—and contentious—at the best of times, and these are not the best of times. Almost everything that could go wrong in Iowa did. And the range of threats to the integrity of our elections means we’ll surely see similar confusion again this cycle. When we do, let’s stick to what we know, while pushing aggressively to find out what we don’t.
Below, more on the elections:
- Too slow?: Was the press too slow to spot Trump supporters’ coordinated efforts to clog the caucus helpline? Emily Bell, of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism (and CJR), tweeted yesterday that news organizations with sufficient resources should have reporters hanging around 4chan in the run-up to elections, as well as on the ground.
- Up for debates: Tonight at 8pm, seven Democratic candidates will debate at St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire. ABC News, WMUR-TV, and Apple News are hosting; ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, David Muir, and Linsey Davis will moderate, with help from WMUR’s Monica Hernandez and Adam Sexton. (The New Hampshire primary is on Tuesday.) The next debate will be in Nevada, on February 19. Vanessa Hauc, of Noticias Telemundo, will be among the moderators—the first time ever that a climate journalist will have chaired a presidential debate. HEATED’s Emily Atkin has more.
- Disinfo wars: For The Atlantic, McKay Coppins outlines “the billion-dollar disinformation campaign to reelect the president.” Pro-Trump operatives, Coppins reports, are planning to smear journalists and bury news under an avalanche of online propaganda. “Scholars have a name for this,” Coppins writes. “Censorship through noise.”
Other notable stories:
- Following his acquittal in his Senate impeachment trial, Trump took a victory lap—first at the National Prayer Breakfast, and then in a rambling, vindictive address in the East Room of the White House. (CNN’s Jim Acosta said the latter speech was “like a press conference, except Trump is answering the questions he wishes reporters would ask.”) In both venues, Trump held up newspaper front pages bearing banner headlines about his acquittal; “Maybe we’ll frame it,” he said, of the Post’s. “It’s the only good headline I’ve had in the Washington Post.” (Today’s Post front page has a photo of Trump with yesterday’s front page.) Impeachment may be over, but the fallout from the Ukraine scandal is not. Yesterday, the Daily Beast reported that researchers at Fox News warned colleagues that Fox guests including Rudy Giuliani and John Solomon have used the network to push “disinformation” about the country. (Fox says the Beast quoted the research out of context.)
- Two weeks after Kobe Bryant’s death, coverage of a rape charge he once faced continues to generate controversy. This week, Gayle King came under fire after her network, CBS, shared a clip of King asking Lisa Leslie, a former WNBA star and friend of Bryant’s, about the allegation. Afterward, King criticized her employer. The question, she said, was shown without context. “If I had only seen the clip that you saw, I would be extremely angry with me too,” King said. “When you see it that way, it’s very jarring.”
- For CJR’s series on faith and journalism, Kyle Pope, our editor and publisher, spoke with three journalists of faith—Coppins, of The Atlantic; Ari Goldman, a professor at Columbia Journalism School; and Aysha Khan, of Religion News Service—on our podcast, The Kicker. And Amanda Darrach embedded with an anti-vaccination group on WhatsApp, which, “more than most other technological platforms, illustrates an uncomfortable truth for journalists: we all have our own informational realities now.”
- Days after taking over as CEO of Tribune, Terry Jimenez slashed the company’s executive ranks, the New York Post’s Keith J. Kelly reports. Tribune has seen upheaval since last year, when Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund, became its biggest shareholder. Tribune had already offered buyouts to experienced journalists. Two reporters at the Capital Gazette, who covered a shooting at their paper in 2018, were among those to go.
- This week, TerraServer—a low-cost, high-quality provider of satellite imagery—shut down. Many journalists relied on the service; the Post, for example, used it for a story on deaths in Syrian prisons. Azmat Khan, an investigative journalist, noted yesterday that powerful institutions—“governments, militaries, defense contractors, large corporations, hedge funds”—are acquiring a “de facto monopoly” on high-quality satellite images.
- Last month, prosecutors in Brazil hit Glenn Greenwald, of The Intercept, with cybercrime charges linked to his reporting on corruption. Yesterday, a judge declined to proceed with them, citing a Supreme Court injunction protecting Greenwald. The judge noted, however, that should the injunction be overturned, he’d be open to considering the charges again.
- And in China, Li Wenliang—a doctor whose early efforts to raise the alarm about the coronavirus were silenced by the Chinese state—died after contracting the disease. Internationally, misinformation about the virus continues to spread, boosted by powerful people. Steve Bannon has linked it, falsely, to a Chinese biological weapons program. And Russian state TV has blamed the virus on Donald Trump.
Update: This post has been updated to add a comment from Fox News.