In recent days, President Trump’s Senate impeachment trial has been framed, in many quarters, as a programming clash with the 2020 election—a distraction felt especially acutely by the senators/jurors who would rather be out on the campaign trail. Yesterday, however, the election was front and center as top Democrats opened their formal case for Trump’s removal. Adam Schiff—who spoke on the Senate floor for nearly two and a half hours without a break—accused Trump of soliciting help from Ukraine in order to “cheat” in 2020. Liberal pundits were fulsome in their praise of Schiff’s performance. His “cheating” line echoed through subsequent headlines and coverage, including on the front page of today’s New York Times.
“Cheating,” of course, is far from the only threat to the integrity of America’s elections in 2020. Since the turn of the year alone, we’ve seen a number of alarming stories about vulnerabilities in the country’s electoral architecture, and foreign actors’ plans to exploit them. Election-security experts warn that electronic voting equipment looks susceptible, both to technical glitches and to cyber attacks. (The Kremlin is already thought to have manipulated voting infrastructure in all 50 states, though no vote tally, it seems, has yet been affected.) Congress has put aside cash to fight this sort of thing, but top Democrats fear the money will not be spent wisely, and say much more needs to be done, regardless. Our defenses against Russian interference attempts—be they through hacking or the coordinated dissemination of false and/or compromising information about candidates—have improved since 2016, but weak spots remain, and Russia’s tactics are reported to be more sophisticated this time around. Last week, the Times reported that Russian hackers already breached Burisma, the Ukrainian gas company at the center of Trump’s smears against Joe Biden; it’s not yet clear what they were up to, but the pattern looks similar to what we saw in 2016, when Russia hacked and spread the private emails of top Democrats. Russia isn’t the only foreign threat we face. China, North Korea, and Iran—with which the US hardly has good relations right now—could all try to wreak havoc as America starts to vote.
Threats to the fairness of the vote are coming from inside the house, too. Domestic actors from across the political spectrum have proved themselves more than capable of mimicking Russia’s informational techniques. Other ills—efforts to prevent citizens of color from voting, for example—have older roots. (On Monday, Kristen Clarke, a top civil-rights lawyer, told MSNBC’s Ali Velshi that when it comes to voter suppression, “In many respects, we have slipped back to the Jim Crow era.”) Often, these threats are intertwined. As Errin Haines reported recently for CJR, disinformation campaigns are often targeted at Black voters. Newsrooms—which tend to be less diverse than they should be—often fail to catch such tricks. Shireen Mitchell, an expert in the field, told Haines: “Unless you’re on Black Twitter, you don’t hear the conversations.”
As stories like the ones mentioned above (all of which ran in major outlets; some at real length) show, news organizations are covering the range of challenges facing the vote this year. (To add another example, Slate recently launched “Who Counts?”, a project that aims to amplify issues around voting rights.) The problem is more that such coverage feels atomized, when it should add up to a single, urgent national conversation. Sometimes, it can feel siloed, too—a priority for cybersecurity correspondents, maybe, but less so for political reporters and pundits, who obsess over the state of the horse race without reflecting at much length on whether the track is even. The Times’s Burisma story, for example, caused alarm and even cut through on cable news. But it was quickly lost to our all-consuming news cycle.
As 2020 has approached, we’ve passed up several opportunities to center the specter of foreign election interference, in particular. When the Mueller report was published last year, coverage in the aftermath focused less on its findings about Russian meddling, and more on passages containing new details of possible obstruction by Trump. Later, when Mueller testified to Congress, he noted himself that his findings on Russian interference had been “underplayed to a certain extent,” even though “they’re doing it as we sit here, and they expect to do it during the next campaign.” Much of the press, on that occasion, seemed too underwhelmed by the dull “optics” of his testimony to care much about what he had to say.
Likewise, the long-running impeachment story has offered us repeat opportunities to shape a national conversation on election threats, which are, after all, what the impeachment story is principally about. We’ve taken some of those opportunities. But too often, we’ve let the central facts slip into the background, diluted by “bothsidesism” and talk of polls, process, and more.
The media needs to do a better job of connecting the dots between Trump’s conduct with Ukraine and the other election challenges we face, and it needs to do so before such threats materialize, rather than in reaction to them. And newsrooms, if they haven’t already, need urgently to plan for what they’ll do if—or, more likely, when—malicious actors, foreign or otherwise, try to use them as a funnel for stolen information. Belching it out day and night, as we did with Democrats’ emails in 2016, won’t be good enough.
The press may at least get more of a heads up this time than it did in 2016. In recent days, Shelby Pierson, the intelligence community’s top election-security official, has promised greater transparency around impending threats this time around; “Transparency enables resilience,” she told NPR yesterday. “The more that we talk about the threat, potentially the more we empower voters.” It’ll be the media’s job to communicate such warnings to the public (without being overly credulous of the official line, of course). We could start by maintaining our focus on the warning on display in the Senate right now. It’s not biased to advocate for a level playing field.
Below, more on the election:
- Ready or not?: Many observers fear that big social media platforms are ill-prepared to tackle misinformation campaigns ahead of the elections. On Tuesday, Nathaniel Gleicher, head of security policy at Facebook, wrote an op-ed in the Des Moines Register promising voters in Iowa, whose caucuses are in 10 days, that the company is ready.
- Reince, repeat: CBS News announced that it’s adding Reince Priebus—who chaired the Republican National Committee through the 2016 election, then served as Trump’s chief of staff—as an on-air political analyst. Priebus made his debut yesterday. Liberal Twitter was not very happy.
- CPD dispensed?: Last month, the Times reported that Trump could skip the election debates in the fall because he doesn’t trust the Commission on Presidential Debates to run them fairly. Yesterday, Times reporter Maggie Haberman tweeted that Brad Parscale, Trump’s campaign manager, is “talking to outside companies about debates.”
- Look who’s back: Tulsi Gabbard, who is still in the Democratic race for president, is suing Hillary Clinton for defamation after Clinton called Gabbard “a favorite of the Russians.” Clinton is back in the news in a big way this week; she’s on the cover of the Hollywood Reporter ahead of the release of a new documentary at Sundance. Clinton told the magazine that “nobody likes” Bernie Sanders, and that she doesn’t think the media has learned the lessons of 2016.
Other notable stories:
- On Tuesday, The Guardian was first to report the extraordinary news that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman may personally have helped hack the phone of Jeff Bezos, owner of Amazon and the Washington Post, via WhatsApp. Yesterday, two human-rights officials at the United Nations reiterated the allegation, adding that MBS appeared to be trying “to influence, if not silence” the Post’s reporting on Saudi Arabia. The Saudis allegedly spied on Bezos’s phone between May 2018 and February 2019, during which period state assassins murdered Jamal Khashoggi, a Post columnist. (Motherboard obtained the forensic report on the alleged hack, which did not find direct evidence of malware on Bezos’s phone. Some experts have questions. Bezos has yet to comment, but did tweet “#Jamal” yesterday.) Also per the UN, MBS sent Bezos a photo resembling a woman with whom Bezos was having an affair, before the affair was made public by the National Enquirer. Last year, Bezos hinted at Saudi involvement in that story.
- For CJR, Samer Kalaf—who quit as managing editor of Deadspin, along with the site’s entire staff, last year, amid interference from management—tells the story of its decline in three meetings. “Deadspin had survived numerous crises over the years by focusing on what we could control: doing good blogs and sticking together,” he writes. But its new leaders “methodically broke down the walls that protected” Deadspin and its sister sites.
- Serial Productions, maker of the wildly popular true-crime podcast Serial, is weighing a sale and the New York Times is a potential buyer, the Journal’s Benjamin Mullin reports. The Times, of course, has found wild popularity of its own via its morning news podcast, The Daily. For New York magazine, Matthew Schneier explores the show’s success.
- The Miami Herald is closing its production plant; from April, the South Florida Sun Sentinel will print the Herald and its sister paper, El Nuevo Herald, instead. Seventy staffers will lose their jobs, though some may be rehired by the Sentinel. The Herald’s owner, McClatchy, is feeling the pinch; last week, it missed debt and pension payments.
- Late last year, Larry Persily—publisher of the Skagway News, a small local paper in Alaska—appealed for a buyer, and pledged to give them the paper for free. After national media picked up the story, Persily fielded applications from all over the world. In the end, he picked two teachers from the Anchorage School District to run the paper.
- CJR’s Brendan Fitzgerald takes issue with coverage of Monday’s gun-rights rally in Virginia, which was overshadowed by threats of physical violence that did not, in the end, materialize. But “intimidation is a form of violence,” Fitzgerald notes. Rather than state that, reporters “effectively congratulated [the ralliers] for not killing anyone.”
- On Tuesday, authorities in Indonesia arrested Philip Jacobson, an editor at Mongabay, an environmental news site, for an alleged visa violation. Jacobson, who is a US citizen, faces a potential prison sentence of five years. His past work has exposed “environmental degradation and corporate malfeasance” in Indonesia, the Times reports.
- And local newspapers across the UK put climate change on their front pages yesterday. The coordinated effort was part of a campaign to encourage readers to “#Do1Thing” to combat the climate crisis.