Please consider subscribing for $6 a month to support fearless, ad-free media commentary. Thanks!
Here’s the collection of words and phrases the New York Times recently used in a California dispatch as part of the paper’s attempt not to employ “lies” when describing pre-emptive and baseless Republican lies about the state’s gubernatorial recall vote:
• “false election claims”
• “baseless allegations”
• “election denialism”
• “baseless allegations”
• “false allegations”
• “relentless falsehoods”
• “false claims”
• “conspiracy theories”
• “baseless claim”
• “claimed without evidence”
For the California race, Trump (“I predict it’s a rigged election”), Fox News' Tomi Lahren and the leading Republican candidate to replace Gov. Gavin Newsom, AM radio talker Larry Elder, all suggested voter fraud was going to allow the Democrat escape being recalled. (He did, easily.) Piggy-backing on Trump’s Big Lie, the recall fraud campaign signaled that the Republican Party increasingly won’t accept election results when they lose.
Yet news outlets like the Times played word games in order to avoid honest and blunt descriptions — the Times never used “lie” in an article that was all about GOP election lies.
The stilted language the Times used in order to avoid telling the truth represents the kind of unnatural word choices journalists make when they want to whitewash deeply disturbing Republican behavior. (Who, in everyday life, uses “false claims” when they’re talking about obvious lies?)
We’re approaching the one-year anniversary of Trump’s election defeat and major news outlets are still peddling “falsehood” gibberish in the face of the Republican Party’s increasingly undemocratic behavior?
Journalists stubbornly refuse to learn a crucial lesson from their Trump era failure — call GOP lies “lies.” By soft pedaling right-wing claims that the California recall vote might be stolen or rigged, reporters made the same mistake they made after Trump lost re-election by 8 million votes — they played nice. And they gave the GOP a pass in its attempt to normalize its attacks on election confidence in this country.
Last winter, even as Trump actively tried to engineer the open theft of a presidential contest, and held White House discussions with deranged, conspiracy-peddling advisers, news outlets kept producing ho-hum updates about Trump’s “tactics,” his vague “moves” and “chicanery”; his “quixotic” legal “strategy,” and how he was “sulking” and “brooding” inside the White House. One Politico dispatch even dismissed Trump’s erratic post-election behavior as little more than “bad sportsmanship."
Except that “chicanery” and “bad sportsmanship” soon led to a deadly coup attempt at the U.S. Capitol, as violent Trump fanatics tried to overturn the election results.
The Times California recall article last week was a textbook example in how not to cover obvious blatant lies, but at least the report addressed them. Days later, in its California recall election page-one finale, the paper made no mention of the fact that the leading Republican candidate in the race was actively spreading doubt about the election results being trustworthy. Somehow that did not garner a single mention.
The Times has hardly been alone in falling down on this story. The Washington Post recently announced, “California’s Recall Becomes the New Epicenter of Unfounded Fraud Claims,” and refused to call the lies “lies.” CNN highlighted “voter fraud fabrications” in California, “baseless election fraud claims,” and “debunked claims.”
This media malfeasance — the downplaying —unfolds as stunned scholars warn us that Republicans are putting American democracy at risk with their unprecedented and brazen attacks on free and fair elections.
What’s discouraging is that months ago the Times signaled it was going to accurately describe Trump’s 2020 election “lies.” (Headline: "In Turning on Liz Cheney, G.O.P. Bows to Trump’s Election Lies") So why when covering the exact types of lies being laundered about the California recall vote did the daily revert to nonsense language like “false claims” and “baseless allegations”?
The good news is we have seen examples of news outlets learning from Trump era mistakes and adjusting the way they cover GOP misinformation. Earlier this year as a clown-show ballot review unfolded in Arizona, most news outlets played along and treated the charade as an “audit” without including qualifiers, such as “so-called,” “alleged,” or “absurd.” In the process, the press lent an undeserved air of legitimacy to the joke proceedings.
Today however, very few national outlets call what happened in Arizona an “audit,” as the staged events now spread to other states, such as Pennsylvania. The Philadelphia Inquirer recently explained to readers that the paper “is not currently referring to attempts by Pennsylvania Republicans to investigate the 2020 presidential election as an audit because there's no indication it would follow the best practices or the common understanding of an audit among nonpartisan experts.”
That’s progress in terms of standing up to GOP misinformation and not letting bad-faith actors hijack our language. But it made the wholesale failure regarding California recall “lies” all the more distressing.
Memo to media: Words matter.
(Photo: Getty Images)
The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan took a close look at the Inquirer’s decision to not use “audit” in its news coverage of GOP ballot reviews.
“We think it is critical to speak plain truths about efforts to make it harder to vote and about efforts to sow doubts about the electoral process,” Dan Hirschhorn, senior politics editor at the Inquirer, told me. “These are not ‘he said/she said’ stories — there is clear, objective truth here.”
More plain truths from the Inquirer: In the story carrying this explainer box, the paper uses the term “forensic investigation” — which is what the GOP wants to call it — in quotation marks. A sub-headline makes it clear that this effort is “modeled off the months-long partisan review in Arizona,” widely regarded as irrevocably flawed and unnecessary to begin with, initiated by Republican lawmakers carrying water for Trump and placed in the hands of dubious private firms. (“Fraudit” may be a more accurate term.)
FUN STUFF — BECAUSE WE ALL NEED A BREAK
Dierks Bentley (featuring Breland and Hardy), “Beers on Me”
A late entry for Song of the Summer among a certain music-loving demographic, “Beers on Me” is a feel-good, laid-back gem wtih a unapologetic vibe of inclusion.
Bentley’s been one of Nashville’s most reliable stars for more than a decade. But it’s the young bucks, Breland and Hardy, who steal the show here with their sly vocal delivery.
Everybody's got a problem, so do I
But we ain't gonna solve 'em on a Saturday night
I just put a paycheck in the bank
And I ain't hit the town in a minute to drink
You had one of them, one of those weeks
Stuck on repeat, I'll save you a seat
🎙 Click here to listen to the music that’s been featured on PRESS RUN, via a Spotify playlist.
Click hereto listen via Apple Music.