The Media Today

Trump’s war on mail-in voting and the Postal Service

August 14, 2020

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.”

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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.”

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ICYMI: When the news becomes religion

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.