The Media Today

Covering an election when its credibility is in doubt

February 7, 2020

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.”

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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.”

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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:

ICYMI: Why did Matt Drudge turn on Donald Trump?

Update: This post has been updated to add a comment from Fox News.

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.