Yesterday, as senior Republican officials continued to indulge President-unelect Trump’s election fantasies, his claims of widespread voter fraud continued to be baseless, and reporters continued to point that out. Republicans in various states have made mountains out of procedural molehills and challenged inconsequential numbers of votes, including in areas Trump won. When a judge in Pennsylvania asked a Trump lawyer whether he was actually alleging any fraud, the lawyer replied, “To my knowledge at present, no”; meanwhile, according to the Washington Post and a Congressional committee, a postal worker in the same state admitted to inventing fraud claims that attracted widespread attention. (The postal worker denies this.) Various outlets noted that donations Trump has solicited to help him “DEFEND” the election have been used to pay down campaign debt and funneled to a new Trump PAC; per the New York Times, “only after a donor gives more than $5,000 does any of the money go to the recount account that Trump set up.” Times reporters separately canvassed politicians and election administrators in every state and found nothing nefarious to report. The story tops A1 today, under the headline, “ELECTION OFFICIALS NATIONWIDE FIND NO FRAUD.”
In media circles, a debate about how best to cover the fraud lies and frivolous litigation has taken shape. Some commentators have argued that covering them at all is a waste of time that only risks boosting the president’s true, non-legal objective, which is to seed widespread public distrust. “Should I do an investigation calling all fifty states’ Parks and Recreation departments to figure out that Big Foot isn’t a thing?” ProPublica’s Jessica Huseman tweeted. “Because that’s what the New York Times just did with voter fraud.” Others have covered Trump’s efforts but urged news consumers not to freak about them, given that they won’t work. “Everybody needs to take a deep breath,” Joe Scarborough said on MSNBC yesterday. “It’s sound and fury signifying nothing.” Many are furious. “I admire those of you who can take an ‘it’s not going to work so calm down’ approach to all of this,” Jamelle Bouie, a columnist at the Times, wrote yesterday, “because I am incredibly angry with the Republican Party’s cynical and cowardly willingness to delegitimize democracy to save face with the monster they put into office.” Some remain terrified that Trump and his allies are trying to pull off a coup. “Trump’s tantrum… is getting out of control, and dangerous,” Elvia Díaz, a columnist at the Arizona Republic, wrote. “All this talk and moves to forcibly remain in office should scare the hell out of everyone.”
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All these responses are justifiable. More than that, they can all be correct. Time and again in the Trump era, we’ve had to cover stories—the Bible photo op, Sharpiegate, and so on—that are at once funny, and eye-rollingly pathetic, and extremely harmful; now such stories are coming thick and fast, as satirically amateurish lawsuits vie for our attention with abuses of federal power. On Saturday, Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer, spread conspiracies about fraud at a press conference outside the Four Seasons in Philadelphia—not the hotel, but a landscaping business adjacent to an adult bookstore and a crematorium. Hilarious? Yes. Really actually not funny? Also yes. The traditional press, which tends to privilege clarity of narrative and flatness of tone, has never really been equipped to handle such jarring contradictions. Yesterday, a reporter asked Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, whether his department was coordinating with Joe Biden’s team, and Pompeo replied that “there will be a smooth transition… to a second Trump administration.” There followed a debate among journalists as to whether or not Pompeo was joking. But much of that debate glided right past the salient point: a key tenet of Trumpism and its informational architecture has been to blur the line between joking and not joking until there is no longer a meaningful distinction.
Throughout Trump’s presidency, his enablers in the Senate, in particular, have routinely deployed the “joke” excuse to dodge difficult questions. Those enablers have used sophistry and technicalities as blurring devices, too—they did it during impeachment and around Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination, and they’re doing it again now, telling reporters and TV anchors that Trump is simply exercising his rightful options and that, actually, there is no result until it’s certified, even though this is not how any recent election call has worked. (As Parker Molloy, of Media Matters for America, pointed out, Republicans “are taking things that are formalities and trying to reframe them as being ‘the real’ election.”) Members of the media have often pushed back strongly on such logic, but on occasion, they’ve let it slide, or even conceded the point to try and make interviewees instead address Trump’s wildest claims. But these talking points are all inseparable parts of a multi-pronged disinformation campaign.
Again, we’ve seen much admirably tough journalism this week. (Some observers have wondered where such toughness has been for the last four years.) Still, some of the rhythms and assumptions of political journalism have risked aiding top Republicans in their line-blurring. Coverage has often framed the behavior of Republican senators in strategic terms—an attempt to fire up the base ahead of Senate runoffs in Georgia, or to mollify Trump to avoid a scene. Such framing, however, can shift the focus away from the outrageousness of the behavior itself. (On the Times’s podcast The Daily last Friday, Maggie Haberman said that Sen. Lindsey Graham had echoed Trump’s election lies “under some duress”—the duress in question being a mean tweet from Donald Trump, Jr.) And reporters have continued to allow Republican officials to anonymously contradict their public defiance by privately noting that Trump is finished. As I’ve written before, anonymity is complicated, and it’s newsworthy that at least some of Trump’s enablers seem to be lying, rather than delusional. Still, anonymity does not always equal truth—as FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver noted yesterday, “politicians are good at telling people, including reporters, what they want to hear”—and without knowing who said what, true intentions are impossible to gauge. More importantly, what officials are saying privately matters far less than what they are doing publicly—yet by anonymously laundering the disparity between the two, they can soften the focus on the acts. The entire point of conceding an election is to communicate something to the public. It’s meaningless if it’s not done publicly.
The Trump-era debate over whether and how to amplify lies and other forms of bad-faith engagement has circled so endlessly because it’s impossible to settle. Allowing bad actors to use you to sow confusion and contradiction has unsustainable costs, but so, often, does failing to raise the alarm about the attempt, particularly when it comes to something as fundamental as election integrity. The joke/not-a-joke phenomenon drives at the same media weakness: if we rise to it, we’re “triggered”; if we don’t, bad actors use our silence to expand the boundaries of what they can get away with.
The voter-fraud myth has been one such story: the president pushed it in 2016, which seemed ridiculous to many in the press because he’d won, but it had the effect of buttressing his present lies, which are impeding a proper transition of power. Many of the present lies, too, seem ridiculous and futile—but they’ve now spread throughout the Republican Party, and could buttress any number of dark actions in future elections that are closer than this one. At some point, the reality-based press has to intervene as strongly as it can—no exceptions—and call this out for what it is. That doesn’t mean we can’t find Giuliani funny; joking about authoritarianism is its own form of power. But it requires recognizing authoritarianism first.
Below, more on the election and the transition:
- It’s complicated: In recent days, a debate has raged, in media circles, as to whether Rupert Murdoch’s empire is “divorcing” Trump—the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal are nudging the president to concede graciously, but opinion hosts on Fox are backing up his fraud conspiracy. The complicated picture, Michael M. Grynbaum writes for the Times, is a reflection of typical Murdochian “realpolitik.” Murdoch “will do as he has done in other cases,” one former associate said, “which is adapt to a new reality.”
- Georgia on our minds: For the Washington Post, Reis Thebault profiles Robin Kemp, who was the only reporter to observe the entirety of the absentee-vote count in Clayton County, Georgia, that helped establish Biden’s lead in the state. Kemp founded the Clayton Crescent, an independent news site, earlier this year after her local paper, the Clayton News, laid her off; her work tracking the count drove readers and donations to her site and saw her Twitter following explode. Also in Georgia, with the Senate runoffs approaching, John Fredericks, a pro-Trump talk-radio host, is launching a hyperpartisan right-wing news site with the stated aim of combatting “the fake-news, corporate Atlanta Journal-Constitution.” Spencer Silva has more for Media Matters for America.
- How did voting go?: On The Takeaway, Tanzina Vega discussed what the election taught us about the mechanics of voting in America with Myrna Pérez, director of the Voting Rights and Elections Program at the Brennan Center. Pérez argued that members of the media need to reflect on how they cover individual voting problems. “I think it’s very clear that, in trying to educate voters about things that can go wrong, they nationalize one-offs,” Pérez said. “People really only need to worry about the problems in their state when it comes to their ability to vote.”
- The actual next president: MSNBC has severed ties with several paid on-air contributors who have joined Biden’s transition team, including the legal analyst Barbara McQuade, the political analyst Richard Stengel, the medical expert Ezekiel Emanuel, and the historian Jon Meacham—who helped write Biden’s victory speech on Saturday, then appeared on MSNBC to praise it without disclosing his involvement. Stengel, a former State Department official and editor at Time magazine, will lead Biden’s team reviewing policy around the US Agency for Global Media, which oversees broadcasters including Voice of America and has been overtly politicized by Trump and his allies.
- That sex shop down the road: Slate’s Rachelle Hampton interviewed Bernie D’Angelo, who owns the sex shop, Fantasy Island Adult Books and Novelties, that neighbors Four Seasons Total Landscaping in Philadelphia. “Donald Trump starts out playing around with Stormy Daniels, and next thing you know, one of his final hurrahs is going to be down the street from an adult bookstore that’s been there for forty years,” D’Angelo said. “You can’t write this stuff.”
Other notable stories:
- This morning, China removed four pro-democracy lawmakers from Hong Kong’s legislature, and the remainder of their colleagues resigned in protest—a major new development in China’s war on dissenting speech in the territory which has included a press-freedom crackdown. Yesterday, Bao Choy, a journalist with the public broadcaster RTHK, appeared in court after she was arrested in a connection with a program that investigated a mob attack on pro-democracy protesters and journalists last year. Even Hong Kong’s news stands are in decline, as the BBC’s Grace Tsoi reported yesterday.
- Yesterday’s other big story came at the Supreme Court, where justices heard arguments in a case aimed at destroying the Affordable Care Act. The law’s individual mandate may be struck down, but Congress already rendered it toothless, and five justices—including the conservatives John Roberts and Brett Kavanaugh—signaled that ruling the mandate unconstitutional need not imperil the remainder of the law. A ruling is expected next year.
- The LA Times and Tribune Publishing, its former owner, will pay out $3 million to settle a lawsuit brought by women and journalists of color who allege that bosses at the paper paid them less than their white, male counterparts, in breach of California state law. Both the LA Times and Tribune have denied breaking any laws, and have not admitted to any wrongdoing as part of the settlement. The LA Times’s Meg James has more details.
- Recently, ProPublica and the Arizona Daily Star translated an investigation on disability benefits into plain language, which makes information more accessible for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. According to Nieman Lab’s Sarah Scire, the translation appears to be the first ever to have run in an outlet “that isn’t specifically produced by and/or for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.”
- Spotify has made another podcast-related acquisition, purchasing Megaphone in a deal worth $235 million. Formerly known as Panoply Media, Megaphone now focuses on podcast production, advertising, and metrics, allowing advertisers to target listeners across a range of podcasts and apps. The Wall Street Journal’s Anne Steele has more.
- Yesterday, The Verge launched a new podcast, Decoder with Nilay Patel, hosted by the site’s editor in chief and focused on the future of tech, business, and policy; the first episode features an interview with Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks. The show will build on Kara Swisher’s Recode Decode podcast. Swisher is now at the Times.
- In Mexico, assassins shot and killed Israel Vázquez, a reporter with the news site El Salmantino, as he prepared to go live on air to cover the discovery of human remains in Salamanca, in Guanajuato state. According to press-freedom groups, nine journalists have been killed in Mexico this year, three of them in the last month. CNN has more.
- In the UK, a man pleaded guilty to fraud charges after he copied articles from the Northern Echo, a local newspaper, onto a fake news website and used the content to solicit donations in aid of “independent, carefully-researched news stories.” The man said in court that he received zero donations. The Northern Echo has more.
- And solidarity with Ken Dilanian.
ICYMI: Why the coronavirus and election stories will be hard to untangleJon 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.