The Media Today

Election threats, foreign and domestic

August 19, 2020

Yesterday, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a damning, dense, bipartisan report on Russian interference in the 2016 election, and the Trump campaign’s ties to it. The report describes the conduct of Paul Manafort, Trump’s onetime campaign manager, as a “grave counterintelligence threat”; identifies Konstantin Kilimnik, a longtime Manafort associate, as a Russian intelligence officer who may have been involved in the hack of Democrats’ emails; concludes that Trump did communicate with Roger Stone, his jailed-then-freed consigliere, about WikiLeaks’s handling of those emails, even though Trump told Robert Mueller that he didn’t; and devotes pages to Trump’s liaison with women including a former Miss Moscow. Like Mueller’s before it, the report stops short of alleging a coordinated conspiracy—but, in the words of the Washington Post, it attributes this conclusion more to “ineptitude than any principled commitment to the sanctity of American democracy.” (Republicans on the committee used the technicality to parrot Trump’s “no collusion” catchphrase, and contradicted their own work in the process.)

The Senate report, many journalists agreed, went substantially beyond Mueller’s findings. “The Mueller report was not as clearly written as this Senate document, every word of which was signed off on by Republican Trump allies,” Ken Dilanian, a national security reporter at NBC, wrote. “That is not a ringing endorsement of the Mueller report.” In progressive corners of Twitter, a related narrative took hold—that Mueller ultimately failed to make his case sufficiently damning and clear. On MSNBC, Nicolle Wallace asked Andrew Weissmann, who worked on the Mueller report and is now an MSNBC analyst, whether Mueller’s team had failed to “stop” Trump. Weissmann replied that “stopping Trump” hadn’t been in the Special Counsel’s purview. Online, other legal pundits, including Asha Rangappa, of Yale, made a similar point.

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As Mueller slowly (by the impatient standards of 24/7 news, at least) went about his work, speculation about the secrets he may have been privy to rampaged through a frenzied news cycle. Last spring, the weeks in between Attorney General William Barr’s confirmation that Mueller was finished (which was accompanied by a misleading summary of Mueller’s key findings) and the release of the report itself ratcheted up the suspense to Hollywood levels, as media outlets readied themselves for a race to find the most scandalous segments. Mueller’s report contained much that was very damning, but his specific mandate and legalistic way of doing business were, ultimately, never likely to match our expectations. Just over a year ago, Mueller appeared before Congress; we prayed loudly for a belated injection of drama, but Mueller stuck to his script. The pundit class concluded that he’d bombed, and agreed that there was no longer much to see here.

Yesterday’s Senate report, by contrast, landed with an unexpected jolt in a very different media context. As the day progressed, we caught glimpses of obsessions past, especially on cable news. It also, however, underscored how much the texture of the news cycle has changed since then. At the time, the Mueller cycle felt high-stakes and hectic; in hindsight, it looks more like an appetizer for all the chaos that has followed. Back then, Trump’s possible impeachment was seen as the mythic apotheosis of the Mueller arc; today, we’ve been there and done that (for reasons that, on the surface at least, had little to do with Mueller) and accountability did not ensue. The pandemic has loaded today’s news with the sobering weight of thousands of deaths, which can be felt—in our collective fatigue, in the increasingly introspective tenor of our coverage, and beyond—even when we aren’t discussing them overtly. And Trump’s misconduct has, somehow, only grown more brazen over time. The pretense that his darkest deeds lurk in shadowy corners beyond public view has become harder and harder to sustain.

In recent days, the latter reality has exploded into a huge scandal about the Postal Service. Trump said last week that he would decline to provide the USPS with extra funding because he didn’t want the money used to process mail-in ballots; since then, tales of missing mail-sorting machines and public collection boxes, service delays, cronyism, and apparent conflicts of interest have fused with Trump’s admission to drive an urgent news cycle across the mainstream media. Yesterday, a dam broke: Louis DeJoy, the postmaster general (and leading GOP donor), said that the USPS would suspend cost-saving measures, including the removal of machines, until after the election, to avoid “even the appearance” of meddling. Congressional Democrats insisted that DeJoy must reverse—not merely suspend—the policies in question.

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Also yesterday, we learned that DeJoy, who was already slated to testify before a Democratic-controlled House panel next week, will appear before the Republican-led Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Friday. That looks like an effort at spin; indeed, Ron Johnson, the Republican senator who chairs the committee, said yesterday that he was inviting DeJoy “to tell his side of the story before he appeared before a hostile House committee.” Johnson has been no stranger to spin of late—he’s currently leading an investigation into the intelligence community’s conduct around its 2016 Russian-interference probe and the period between the 2016 election and Trump becoming president. Last week, Johnson said his probe “would certainly help” Trump win reelection. Johnson is also still digging for dirt on the Biden family and Ukraine. Democrats and outside analysts, including Rangappa, have accused Johnson of indulging Russian disinformation tactics. (He denies this.)

These and other similar gambits—including a separate investigation, tied to the origins of the 2016 Russia probe, that’s being led by the prosecutor John Durham and has been hyped by Barr—are set to come out before election day. And, as intelligence officials recently acknowledged, the specter of Russian election interference isn’t merely historic—they’re trying to do it this year, too. (The officials also said that China wants Biden to win, but does not pose a Russia-sized meddling threat.) Taken together, these stories—plus the Mueller and Senate Intelligence reports, plus the mess at the USPS and Trump’s war on mail-in voting—all add up to one knotty story, spanning four years and multiple countries, about the basic integrity of our elections.

It’s not yet clear which threads of this story historians will choose to emphasize when they look back on the Trump presidency. Perhaps they’ll view Mueller, as many of us have come to, as a warm-up act, or perhaps they’ll see him as a central character. (Historians love a good espionage caper.) The centrality of the USPS scandal will likely be defined by what happens in November. All we can do, right now, is hold all these threats in mind at once, ignore the information warfare raging around them, isolate those that pose the gravest immediate risk, and yell about them. Without media pressure, DeJoy wouldn’t have backed down yesterday. That’s a first step, but there’s much more to be done to ensure that the USPS and mail-in voting run smoothly. And the election still faces many other threats, both foreign and domestic. We must be hyper-vigilant.

Below, more on the election:

Other notable stories:

  • For CJR, Bill Grueskin highlights recent tweets from NBC’s Geoff Bennett and NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro, who called out their own newsrooms’ insufficiently-skeptical framing of Trump’s racist smears about Kamala Harris. “Journalists pride themselves on speaking truth to power. Increasingly, that truth is directed toward their own editors and colleagues,” Grueskin writes. “But does it work for everyone? And should it?”
  • In other newsroom-power news, Vox Media agreed to pay millions of dollars to settle class-action lawsuits, brought by managers and writers for its sports site, SB Nation, alleging unfair pay and the misclassification of employees as contractors. Laura Wagner has more for Vice. Elsewhere, staffers at the education-news site Chalkbeat have unionized. Elizabeth Green, Chalkbeat’s CEO, voluntarily recognized the new union.
  • Laura Garbes, a sociologist at Brown University, interviewed 70 people of color who have worked at an NPR member station about the pitfalls of aiming at a mostly white, well-off listenership. “After over 120 hours of conversation about how racism manifests in their workplaces,” Garbes writes for the American Prospect, “it is abundantly clear that… the prioritization of the public radio network’s core audience remains alive and well.”
  • For CJR, Nora Belblidia spoke with Baynard Woods and Brandon Soderberg, who just wrote a book about Baltimore’s notoriously corrupt Gun Trace Task Force. “I Got a Monster really is a post-uprising book,” Woods said. “It shows a portrait of a post-uprising city, and how the police regrouped as a counterinsurgency. That’s something that many other cities are about to start going through in really scary ways.”
  • The Ringer’s Ben Lindbergh profiles @nyttypos, a Twitter account, run by an anonymous “appellate lawyer and persnickety dude,” that points out copy errors in Times articles. “@nyttypos’ apocalyptic vision of a world awash in typos isn’t entirely baseless,” Lindbergh writes. “Within the past few years, the Times has dramatically revamped its editing process. In 2017, the paper eliminated its 100-plus-person copy desk.”
  • Matthew Smith writes, for Time, that Facebook “appears to be obstructing” an investigation into the genocide of the Rohingya people in Myanmar. The Gambia, which is pursuing Myanmar at the International Court of Justice, filed a legal application in the US seeking data and testimony from Facebook, which has been criticized, including by the UN, for stoking hate in Myanmar—but Facebook is pushing back on the request.
  • Hassan Ammar, an AP journalist based in Beirut, photographed residents who were physically scarred by the massive explosion that shook the city two weeks ago. “The scars often tell the story of where the victim was standing when a stockpile of explosive chemicals stored at Beirut’s port was ignited by a fire,” Ammar writes, “sending an earthquake-like jolt through the city and leaving entire blocks littered with rubble.”
  • In Friday’s newsletter, I shared a BBC article that claimed, based on an academic paper, that at least 800 people worldwide may have died due to coronavirus misinformation. Other outlets shared a similar topline, but the fact-checking site Full Fact is dubious—the 800 figure, it writes, “comes almost entirely from alcohol poisoning deaths in Iran,” and the paper “did not attempt to measure” total global deaths from COVID misinformation.
  • And the 19th Amendment was ratified 100 years ago yesterday. Poynter’s Kristen Hare recaps how the development played on the newspaper front pages of the time, including those of the Times, the Nashville Tennessean, and Indiana’s Noblesville Daily Ledger, which led with the headline, “CONGRATULATIONS TO LOCAL WOMEN.”

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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.