The Media Today

Democrats say Trump is trying to ‘cheat’ in 2020. He’s not the only threat to the election.

January 23, 2020

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.

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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.

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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:

Other notable stories:

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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.