By Margaret Sullivan / The Washington Post
Voting fraud, according to study after study, is rare. Mail-in ballots are, with a few exceptions, a safe way to vote.
But millions of Americans have come to believe something radically different: They think the Nov. 3 election could very well end up being stolen. That the outcome — especially if it relies on counting the votes that come in later than in a normal election year — might well be illegitimate.
Where would they get such an idea?
Conventional wisdom might say it comes from false stories and memes spread on social media, originating from foreign troublemakers trying to influence the election results; most likely in favor of President Trump, who is behind in public opinion polls and stands to benefit most from doubt sown about the reliability of mail-in ballots.
Not so, says a major new study: It’s the American mainstream press that’s doing most of the dirty work.
Eager to look neutral — and worried about being accused of lefty partisanship — mainstream news organizations across the political spectrum have bent over backward to aid and abet Trump’s disinformation campaign about voting by mail by blasting his false claims out in headlines, tweets and news alerts, according to the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.
Analyzing 55,000 stories, 5 million tweets, and 75,000 Facebook posts, the study’s authors traced the disinformation campaign to last spring. It began with a Fox News interview with Trump, followed by his April 8 tweet: “Republicans should fight very hard when it comes to state wide mail-in voting. Democrats are clamoring for it. Tremendous potential for voter fraud, and for whatever reason, doesn’t work out well for Republicans.”
Ever since then, says one of the study’s authors, Trump has been successfully “harnessing professional journalism” to get the message out. Here, for example, was the headline on CNBC’s story on the tweet: “Trump slams mail-in voting, says it ‘doesn’t work out well for Republicans.’” This kind of coverage influenced plenty of people, especially Republicans; half of them now doubt the reliability of mail-in voting.
“If Biden wins clearly by mail-in voting and not in-person voting, you may well have tens of millions of people persuaded that the election was stolen,” Yochai Benkler, the center’s co-director and a Harvard Law School professor, told me. And their outrage could translate into violence.
The disinformation campaign “is transmitted primarily through mass media, including outlets on the center-left and in the mainstream,” Benkler said. In particular, it may be those outlets that try hardest to seem unbiased that are doing a lot of the heavy lifting, he said; in part because of their broad reach and their influence on less-partisan voters.
That’s because Fox News devotees are unlikely to have their minds changed about anything Trump says, and readers of outlets like the New York Times, for the most part, are less likely to embrace the disinformation.
But that leaves a middle 30 percent of the U.S. adult population, Benkler wrote in Columbia Journalism Review, that is “less committed politically, and less uniformly committed to one or the other proposition, regarding fraud and mail-in ballots.” These Americans “watch the TV networks, CNN, and local TV, and they trust their local media. That local media, in turn, depends on syndicated news.”
I asked Benkler what he would do between now and Election Day if he could make one change. He said he would get those news sources to stop amplifying Trump’s falsehoods and do more to counter the falsehoods.
One important way they can do that, he said, is with “the sandwich approach,” sometimes called the truth sandwich, in which accurate information is presented first, followed by the news of the latest false claim or misleading threat, followed by a fact-check of the information. Vox, for example, used the sandwich approach recently with a story that carried this headline: “Vote-by-mail is not full of fraud, despite Trump’s debate claims.” The article itself stated the accurate information first, then took up the false claim, then fact-checked it.
Because Benkler put particular emphasis on the Associated Press, which supplies news to many local outlets and is regarded as a definitive and reliable news source, I asked John Daniszewski, the AP’s standards editor, about the complaint. He told me in an email that for years, the news service has been advising its journalists “to avoid amplifying misinformation and to use techniques like the truth sandwich.”
For example, on Tuesday, rather than emphasizing Trump’s remarks about his triumph over the novel coronavirus, which the president again falsely compared to the seasonal flu in terms of severity, the main AP story’s headline read: “Trump, contagious in the White House, back to downplaying virus.”
AP managing editor Brian Carovillano added that the news service is putting particular emphasis on all-important headlines, and on top paragraphs of stories, because that’s as far as many readers get. He also pointed to hundreds of deeply reported stories, over many months, on election access and voting issues, meant to provide context and counter misconceptions.
But with Trump’s ability to control and dictate the news — and with the power of his own Twitter feed and the relentless amplification from right-wing outlets, particularly Fox — these solid practices and this good work apparently aren’t enough.
It’s a problem that comes up every time Trump commandeers the news cycle, as he did Monday evening, timing his departure from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for shortly after 6:30 p.m., just as the network news shows were beginning their evening broadcasts, watched by tens of millions every night.
Trump’s daily coronavirus briefings, similarly, often downplayed the seriousness of the virus and gave dangerous attention to unproven treatments, but the news media faithfully covered them. I was one of those who suggested not taking those broadcasts as live feeds, but rather reporting on them after the fact, with fact-checking incorporated into the story. But, at least in the crucial early days, most news organizations found them too irresistible in their live form or were unwilling to give up the audience share to competitors.
So forget the bots and Russian trolls, or at least don’t overestimate their influence. The defining media story of this era is mainstream journalism’s refusal to deny Trump a giant megaphone whenever he holds out his hand.
Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was the New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of the Buffalo News, her hometown paper.