The Media Today

Who knew what about the election, and the extent to which it matters

June 14, 2022
An image of a mock gallows on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6th is shown as committee members from left to right, Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., Vice Chair Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., and Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., look on, as the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol holds its first public hearing to reveal the findings of a year-long investigation, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, June 9, 2022. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Yesterday morning, Chris Stirewalt—the former politics editor at Fox News, who now works for NewsNation—wrote a column for the conservative news site The Dispatch explaining why he would shortly be appearing before the House committee investigating January 6. After some blather about Lincoln, Nixon, and how “both parties” botched efforts to hold Trump accountable after the insurrection—including in the formulation of the committee and subsequent “partisan” conduct of some of its Democratic members—Stirewalt wrote that he had agreed to testify because the panel’s request that he do so was squarely within its remit. “I have no First Amendment grounds on which to refuse since I am not being asked to reveal a source or something like that,” he wrote. “As a journalist, I feel very uncomfortable even playing this small role in these events. The first rule for my vocation is to tell the truth as best as you can, and the second is to stay the hell out of the story. I will fail in the latter today, but aim for the former.” He declined to set out what his testimony might entail, so as not to “create any expectations.”

Stirewalt had been scheduled to appear at the committee’s second televised hearing alongside Bill Stepien, Trump’s campaign manager as the music stopped in 2020 (and as Trump insisted that he could still hear it), but at the last minute, Stepien pulled out because his wife had just gone into labor; the committee played video clips from Stepien’s prior, behind-closed-doors testimony, but in the room itself, Stirewalt was sworn in alone. He was first asked to confirm the victor of the 2020 election—“Joseph Robinette Biden Jr., of the great state of Delaware,” he replied, crisply—but the committee had demanded his presence for reasons beyond this anodyne affirmation of the obvious. Stirewalt had been centrally involved, on election night, in the Fox decision desk’s call of Arizona for Biden, which it made ahead of any other outlet—a move that so infuriated Trumpworld that his aides quickly demanded a retraction and Trump himself reportedly “screamed” at Rupert Murdoch. As Fox stood by its call, Trump told the media that he had won the election and that evidence to the contrary was fraudulent, a lie that he would never recant. Two months of hellish right-wing election discourse later—not least on Fox’s air—the network ousted Stirewalt, attributing the decision to a corporate restructuring.

Related: The January 6 hearing and the value of spectacle

During yesterday’s hearing, Stirewalt not only defended his former employer’s Arizona call but took evident relish in it, boasting that it had been “really controversial to our competitors, who we beat so badly,” claiming that Fox’s decision desk was “the best in the business,” and saying that its Arizona poll, which was based on data to which other top outlets didn’t have access, was “beautiful” and “cooked up just right.” (The Associated Press followed Fox in quickly calling Arizona for Biden, but other major outlets took days to reach the same conclusion; some observers still maintain that Fox jumped the gun, even though its call proved correct.) Asked what Trump’s chances of winning the election were by November 7, the date that top outlets joined in calling the race as a whole for Biden, Stirewalt was unequivocal—“none”—adding that Trump would have been “better off to play the Powerball” than hope that recounts in numerous states overturn clear pro-Biden margins. The committee didn’t ask Stirewalt much else; there were no questions, for instance, on the terms of his exit from Fox. His testimony, in the end, was tightly focused on telling the truth of the election result, and how it was called, as best he could.

Stirewalt’s simple answers tied into the committee’s broader goal at the hearing: to establish for viewers that a plethora of voices, both publicly and within Trump’s inner circle, told Trump from election night onward that the election was not stolen, only for Trump to claim it anyway, leading eventually to the violence of January 6. Liz Cheney, the top Republican on the committee, said that Trump followed the counsel of an “apparently inebriated” Rudy Giuliani when he falsely declared victory on election night; in his testimony, Stepien referred to the existence of two camps in Trumpworld: “Team Normal” and “Rudy’s Team.” The committee also played taped testimony showing William Barr, Trump’s attorney general, ridiculing various fraud lies and describing Trump as uninterested in “actual facts” and possibly “detached from reality”—strong assertions that led much breathless news coverage in the aftermath of the hearing. Headlines in top outlets called Barr a “star witness” and an “unlikely star”; one CNN analysis referred to him as the “debunker in chief” and “a new hero of sorts for liberals,” while another hailed his “stunning evolution from Trump loyalist to nemesis.” The Independent’s Ahmed Baba called the Barr tapes “some of the most damning testimony for Trump I’ve ever heard in any of the many Trump corruption hearings I’ve covered over the last five years, and that’s saying something.”

Some of the same stories noted, variously, that Barr failed to publicly raise such a dire alarm about Trump’s coup attempt at the time, himself repeatedly sowed doubt as to the security of mail-in voting, and said more recently that he’s open to voting for Trump again in 2024. A handful of journalists decided, laudably, that this context should be central to coverage of Barr’s testimony yesterday. “How do you manage to skate the thin line between being complicit in the wrongdoing of the 2020 election claims and holding yourself out as a heroic whistleblower?” Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick asked rhetorically. “You do so by casting it all as silly, as opposed to evil. And you do so by presenting yourself as the sophisticated elder statesman instead of the guy who slunk away when his country needed him.” Over at The New Yorker, Susan B. Glasser described both Barr and Stepien as “first-class enablers” of Trump, and asked whether we all ought to call “bullshit” on the “Team Normal” conceit. “The committee’s dilemma is the same one journalists faced through the four years of Trump’s Administration,” Glasser wrote: “how to reconcile the cravenness and self-serving behavior of those whose recollections are nonetheless indispensable in understanding what happened with the former President?”

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Glasser continued that “exposing Trump’s fraud, certainly, is far more consequential for the fate of American democracy than calling out the maddening inconsistencies of his subordinates.” But this, to my mind, risks tipping toward a false dichotomy—the hypocrisy of Trump’s subordinates, after all, has always been a key accessory to his fraud. And Trump’s frauds, plural, often don’t need “exposing”; he perpetrated many of them in plain sight. This fact calls into question another idea that was central to yesterday’s hearing—the committee’s desire to prove that Trump knew he was lying about the election—and itself echoes a Trump-era journalistic dilemma, in this case the debate as to whether we should call his lies “lies” given the difficulty of gauging the intent behind his dishonesty. I wrote in 2019 that this intentionality question set the bar for accountability too high: Trump was lying whenever he said something that he should reasonably have known to be false—not just as an average person but as a world leader with possibly unparalleled access to good information. This is particularly true of his election lies.

Of course, the committee has good reason to want to establish that Trump knew he was lying about the election or willfully ignored the truth: proving corrupt intent could be the cornerstone of a future criminal case against Trump, and that, clearly, would be enormously consequential. But journalistic and legal standards of accountability are not the same. In our coverage of whether Trump knew, we should be relentless in clarifying that the reason the question matters is mostly legalistic. Numerous journalists and legal analysts did just that yesterday, on MSNBC’s pre-hearing coverage, for example. But others have not foregrounded this key context enough. For journalistic purposes, Trump’s mindset does not excuse his patently corrupt behavior; ultimately, what he said and did matters more than whether he thought it was okay. As I wrote after the committee’s first hearing last week, journalists do not need to contrive a hunt for a smoking intent-gun to know and clearly communicate that what Trump did was wrong.

When it comes to obvious truths like the 2020 election result, establishing what powerful people should reasonably have known is ample grounds for scrutiny; evidence showing what they did know can often be revealing and interesting in building a historical record, but we rarely need to overhype it in and of itself. Yet this is what some commentators have often done in the longer-term sweep of January 6 coverage—not only around Trump, with his possible future legal woes, but around, for example, top pro-Trump opinionators at Fox, after texts handed to the committee by Mark Meadows, Trump’s final chief of staff, showed them urging Trump to halt and account for the violence of January 6, even as they struck a different tone on air.

Yesterday, their former colleague Stirewalt, whose decision desk was siloed from Fox’s opinion operation, was much more transparent about what he knew about the election, how soon he knew it, and the reasons underpinning his knowledge. We shouldn’t have needed him to be.

Below, more on the hearings and democracy:

  • Murdoch media, I: Last week, Fox News did not broadcast the committee’s first televised hearing in prime time, sticking with its scheduled opinion programming and shunting full coverage to Fox Business, its much lesser-watched sister channel. To the extent that Fox News hosts addressed that hearing while it was ongoing, it was to slam it as a sham and a flop—but yesterday, the network did carry the second January 6 hearing live, “providing its audience with a retelling of the events leading up to that day that is often absent from the network,” Jeremy W. Peters writes for the New York Times. “Those tuning in on Fox experienced a somewhat awkward moment as the focus turned to the network itself” during Stirewalt’s testimony, Peters adds.
  • Murdoch media, II: Following his appearance before the committee, Stirewalt gave an interview to NPR’s David Folkenflik and described the “panic” at Fox that followed the Arizona call and Trump’s angry response in 2020. “We don’t award any electoral votes. We don’t count any ballots. We are some nerds in a room, and that’s it,” Stirewalt said of his former role on the decision desk. “Part of the problem, of course, was that there were opinion hosts on Fox who, for months and months and months, had been repeating the baseless claim that Trump was going to win the election for sure.”
  • Murdoch media, III: As CNN’s Brian Stelter noted over the weekend, print titles owned by Murdoch have taken a somewhat tougher line against Trump since the hearings began: the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal concluded that Trump “betrayed his supporters by conning them on Jan. 6, and he is still doing it,” while that of the New York Post urged readers to move on from Trump and “pick your favorite from a new crop of conservatives.” Stelter asked Dan Pfeiffer, a liberal commentator and former Obama staffer, about the op-eds. “The creation of this entire right-wing media apparatus was designed for one purpose, to elect Republicans to office,” Pfeiffer said. “This is not a moral statement from Rupert Murdoch’s papers about Donald Trump being bad.”
  • Threats to democracy: Last week, Blake Hounshell, of the Times, wrote about a new report from Protect Democracy, a nonprofit group, aimed at helping journalists differentiate between “normal political jockeying” and “systemic risks to democracy.” Jennifer Dresden, the report’s lead author, “says there ought to be clearer standards than the Potter Stewart test—referring to the former Supreme Court justice, who famously said in a 1964 case that his method for identifying obscenity was ‘I know it when I see it,’” Hounshell writes. “There’s some wisdom in that trust-your-gut approach, but democracy is a lot more complicated than a pornographic film.”

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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.