Yesterday, a pair of TV interviews crystallized just how the Trump administration is threatening the integrity of the election. On CNBC, Larry Kudlow, Trump’s top economic adviser, cast “voting rights” as part of a “liberal-left wish list,” adding, “That’s not our game.” On Fox Business, Trump said that he won’t accede to Democrats’ demands that he provide extra funding for the United States Postal Service, because the USPS would use the money to ensure reliable access to mail-in voting.
Trump and his aide said the quiet part out loud. (Later, at a press conference, Trump tried to put the words back in his mouth—too blatant, someone may have told him—then proceeded to spew more lies about voter fraud.) It’s shocking when he spills the awful truth of his thoughts, though it’s happened before (Trump in October: “China should start an investigation into the Bidens”). Reporters, accustomed to digging for dark motives, haven’t always been successful in communicating the gravity of an admission set out in the open. Yesterday, some media-watchers feared the press would trip over the obvious again. “The media has built up such a reflex of ignoring Trump’s wild comments,” Ben Smith, the media columnist at the New York Times, said, “that when he says something that’s major, siren-level news—the postal service remarks—it is only leading one website I can find”: HuffPost. (Today the story still leads HuffPost’s website, alongside an illustration of Trump—with disproportionately tiny hands—tearing up a mail ballot.)
Related: The campaign begins (again)
But soon, the story took hold. Several news organizations—such as the Washington Post and the LA Times—were admirably forthright about the brazenness of Trump’s admission and its scary electoral ramifications. MSNBC, too, gave the USPS urgent billing throughout the day. “In 2016, Donald Trump relied on foreign help and voter suppression to help him squeak by Hillary Clinton,” Joy Reid, the host of The ReidOut, said at the top of her hour. “This year, he’s literally going postal to do the same thing against Joe Biden.” Many journalists situated Trump’s comments on Fox in a broader context—citing, among other things, the president’s long-term efforts to discredit mail-in voting and the recent conflict-of-interest allegations surrounding Louis DeJoy, Trump’s postmaster general. (DeJoy, a longtime Republican donor, has a major stake in a USPS contractor as well as preferential stock options in Amazon; he has denied any wrongdoing.) Yesterday afternoon, Aaron Gordon, of Vice, threw more fuel on the news cycle, reporting that USPS facilities nationwide have removed mail-sorting machines that would have been used to manage ballots ahead of November.
Apart from the stakes of the election, another narrative has also taken hold: the USPS has been caught in the crossfire of Trump’s feud with Jeff Bezos, the owner of Amazon, over coverage in the Post, which Bezos also owns. For years, Trump has accused Bezos of ripping off the USPS, which delivers Amazon packages. Last year, amid Trump’s impeachment, New York’s Jonathan Chait argued that Trump’s weaponizing of federal resources to punish a newspaper owner represented a grotesque, yet mostly underreported, abuse of power. In April, Trump threatened to blow up a round of coronavirus stimulus talks with Congress over planned funding for the USPS, insisting that the post office raise its delivery rates first. Eventually, the Treasury Department agreed to loan the USPS $10 billion—in exchange for proprietary data concerning its contracts with Amazon and other companies.
The specter of privatization looms over the USPS story, too. Last month Mark Dimondstein, the president of the American Postal Workers Union, and Richard Koritz, the union’s solidarity representative, wrote for In These Times that the media’s framing of the Trump-Bezos dispute risks obscuring the Trump administration’s broader agenda: handing control of the USPS to Wall Street. This, they argued, would be a grave mistake. “The Postal Service is owned by all the people of the United States, not capitalist entrepreneurs,” they wrote. “The collective ‘we’ rely on the Postal Service for vital supplies, medicines, ecommerce packages, pension checks, financial transactions, voter information, ballots and a vast exchange of personal correspondence as well as the sharing of ideas and information.”
In recent weeks, some observers have taken issue with news outlets covering the USPS using words like bailout and losses—language that is typically reserved for the private sector and risks obscuring that the USPS is a public agency. Mail-in voting is a critical USPS function, and should stay at the forefront of our coverage, regardless of what Trump tells Fox on any given day. If emails drove the election narrative in 2016, old-fashioned snail mail is poised to do so in 2020. Unlike with the emails story, however, there’s no such thing as too much coverage of Trump’s war on mail-in voting.
Below, more on mail-in voting and the election:
- Fighting misinformation: Yesterday, Facebook started tagging posts about voting with labels directing users to reliable information about the election. (It already started adding similar labels to posts by politicians, including Trump.) Ethan Zuckerman, the Internet scholar now based at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, told the AP that the success of the tags would likely depend on how judiciously Facebook’s algorithms applies them: if labels are appended to every post about voting, he said, people will grow fatigued and ignore them. Yesterday, Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, toured outlets including NPR and CNN to discuss the steps the company is taking to confront election misinformation.
- More voting news: Yesterday, the Supreme Court confirmed that voters in Rhode Island will be able to vote by mail without needing to secure verification from a witness. The Republican Party had challenged the policy. The Post has more. For Wired, Jack Hitt profiles voting-rights activists including Steve Tingley-Hock, an IT guy at American Express who has “a unique hobby: scrutinizing state voter files,” and calling out wrongful voter purges.
- We’re doing this again: On Wednesday, Newsweek published an op-ed in which John Eastman, a law professor, questioned whether Kamala Harris, Biden’s vice-presidential nominee, is allowed to be president, since her parents weren’t US citizens at the time of her birth. (Eastman once ran against Harris to be the attorney general of California; his argument, of course, is nonsense.) After critics online pointed out that the column looked a lot like birtherism, Nancy Cooper, Newsweek’s editor in chief, posted a lengthy editor’s note denying that charge. Trump clearly didn’t get the message: last night, he appeared to reference Eastman’s column as he claimed that Harris “doesn’t meet the requirements” to serve. (For more on the decline of Newsweek, read Daniel Tovrov in CJR.)
- Froth: Hamilton Nolan, CJR’s public editor for the Post, argues that the relegation of trivial campaign coverage is a silver lining of the massive crises facing America. “As the world burns, look on the bright side,” he writes. “The confluence of a quasi-fascist leader, a terrifying global disease outbreak, and explosive uprisings across the country have done what many years of dour columns by fusty media critics could not: made election year news coverage somewhat less pointless.”
Other notable stories:
- Yesterday, Trump announced a surprise diplomatic accord between Israel and the United Arab Emirates; the two countries will normalize relations in exchange for Israel halting its annexation of the West Bank. The agreement will be known as the Abraham Accord. (“I wanted it to be called the ‘Donald J. Trump Accord,’” Trump said in the Oval Office. “But I didn’t think the press would understand that.”) Many news organizations noted the historic nature of the agreement, and some cast it as a big win for Trump—but as Vivian Salama, a national security correspondent at CNN who used to live in the UAE, pointed out, the deal “was a long time coming,” and the UAE “has been largely tolerant of Israel.”
- Denise Lu reports, for the Times, that the COVID-19 death count in the US is likely substantially higher than official figures indicate. According to an analysis of CDC data, “at least 200,000 more people have died than usual since March,” Lu writes. “As the pandemic has moved south and west from its epicenter in New York City, so have the unusual patterns in deaths from all causes. That suggests that the official death counts may be substantially underestimating the overall effects of the virus.”
- In other COVID-19 news, a study published in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene claims that at least 800 people worldwide have died as a result of coronavirus misinformation, including the touting of fake cures. Elsewhere, Vox and the Omidyar Network launched “The Great Rebuild,” a series exploring ambitious policy proposals to counter the destruction of the pandemic. And the Philadelphia Tribune has banned remote working, despite safety concerns among its staff. Philly Mag has more.
- This week, Simon & Schuster announced that Bob Woodward’s new book about Trump will be called Rage, and that it will contain details of correspondence between Trump and Kim Jong Un. The book will be published on September 15. Elsewhere, Michael Cohen, Trump’s jailed former fixer, previewed tidbits from his tell-all memoir about the president, which is due out on September 8. “Golden showers” are involved.
- According to Politico’s Daniel Lippman, the US Agency for Global Media—the suite of nominally-independent broadcasters that was recently taken over by Trump ally Michael Pack—has appointed Frank Wuco, a former shock jock, as an adviser. Wuco has a history of spreading unhinged conspiracy theories, including birtherism. Under Trump, Wuco has worked at the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security.
- For CJR, Philip M. Napoli, a professor of public policy at Duke, applies the Fairness Doctrine—the requirement, abandoned in 1987, that broadcasters ensure balance in political coverage—to Trump’s recent executive order demanding fairness on social media. “The biggest problem with the Fairness Doctrine,” Napoli writes, “is what it does to our conception of journalism and to the notion of how responsible gatekeeping works.”
- Yesterday, Pitchfork’s Amy Zimmerman published a story detailing allegations of sexual abuse by Mark Kozelek, a musician who fronted the indie-rock bands Sun Kil Moon and Red House Painters. Zimmerman details Kozelek’s history of hostile remarks to and about female journalists, one of whom Kozelek called a “bitch.”
- This week, a group of women journalists in Pakistan published a joint statement detailing online harassment they’ve experienced routinely—including hacking attempts and threats of sexual violence—from pro-government trolls. Officials, the journalists wrote, pledged to crack down on such abuse, but have not followed through. The News International has more.
- And Bay Magazine, a publication of the Tampa Bay Times, staged a fashion shoot at their printing plant. “The imposing presses were a sharp contrast to the glamorous designs,” Kathy Saunders, the editor of Bay Magazine, writes. “Imagine wearing a sheer, floral, high-slit gown to toss papers from a delivery truck.”
ICYMI: When the news becomes religionJon 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.