The Florida recounts and the media’s uncertainty problem
By Jon Allsop
“The networks giveth, the networks taketh away.” “Call a doctor, call the police, call a psychic. In Florida, it’s tightened up.”
News anchors said those words on election night in 2000, as networks reversed their early call that the Democratic presidential candidate, Al Gore, would carry the state of Florida and thus the White House. They could have been speaking this week. Florida once again finds itself in tense recount territory, with three statewide races, including crucial Senate and gubernatorial contests, yet to be called a full week after residents went to the polls. This time, doubt has been cast on apparent Republican victories: for Rick Scott in the US Senate race, and for Ron DeSantis in the battle to succeed Scott as governor.
GOP operatives have aggressively pushed the message that their candidates have won—just as they did in 2000. “The effort that Mr. Scott and Republican allies are waging today is strikingly similar to [the] multifront war in 2000 led by the George W. Bush campaign and an army of party consultants,” Jeremy W. Peters and Maggie Haberman write in The New York Times. Among other similarities, “surrogates for the Republican candidate are holding news conference calls with journalists and sitting for interviews on cable, blaming the Democrats for tarnishing the integrity of the electoral process.”
The press is used to partisan warring over recount narratives. But our current media climate is very different to 2000. In the past two years, in particular, baseless claims of widespread voter fraud have become a common right-wing trope, percolating into mainstream discourse via coordinated online campaigns. In the run-up to the midterms, hackneyed conspiracies—that Democrats would bus in illegal immigrants to vote, for instance, or that George Soros funds voting machines—swirled on social media. This past week, they’ve crystallized into more specific lies. Far-right internet personalities and trolls have claimed (with varying degrees of embellishment) that crooked Florida election officials have magicked up boxes of Democratic votes since polling day, among other dirty tricks.
Recounts have always posed a problem for 24-hour news cycles. They become big stories because of their uncertainty, but uncertainty means a paucity of hard facts. TV news shows, in particular, thus have to find something else to fill their airtime. Centering the spin of establishment politicians is bad enough. This time, outlets have also had to contend with the incendiary interventions of President Trump, whose tweets accusing Democrats of trying to “STEAL” the Florida elections through “massively infected” ballots themselves reflect online conspiracy theories, as BuzzFeed’s Jane Lytvynenko and Kevin Collier show.
As the Florida recount has ground slowly on, media organizations have done a progressively better job of using the wait time to contextualize and debunk baseless rhetoric. (Some, like BuzzFeed, have cited reputable studies showing US voter fraud in general to be “vanishingly rare.”) Nonetheless—as with so much that Trump gives a megaphone—the media as a whole has yet to find a consistent, foolproof way of reporting the president’s falsehoods and unproven allegations without lending them an air of credibility. Toronto Star Washington correspondent Daniel Dale flagged a series of headlines and tweets that gave oxygen to Trump’s charges. After ABC News tweeted Trump’s “massively infected” line, Dale responded: “Three years into the Trump era, mainstream media outlets continue to blast out his lies to millions of people without pointing out they're not true.”
Below, more on the still-not-finished midterm elections:
- Unprecedented in recent history: The Tampa Bay Times’ Kirby Wilson wraps some useful context around the Florida recounts, which experts say are unlikely to reverse the results. Of the 26 statewide elections to go to a recount since 2000, only three have flipped, and those races all involved finer margins to begin with.
- Old news! Donald Trump, Jr., got in on the misinformation act in memorable fashion yesterday, tweeting an article from NBC Miami that he said showed 200,000 Florida voters may not be US citizens. A note editors appended to the original article yesterday speaks for itself: “This story was published in May 2012. The initial list of 180,000 names was whittled to 2,625, according to the Florida Department of State... An Aug. 1, 2012, state elections document showed only 85 noncitizens were ultimately removed from the rolls out of a total of about 12 million voters at that time.”
- Wave new world: A week on from the midterms, commentators still can’t decide whether the results qualify as a “blue wave” or not. The AP’s Steve Peoples comes down on the “not” side; but, he writes, “a week after the voting, Democrats are riding higher than they thought on election night.”
- Meanwhile, in Arizona: Democratic optimism was further fueled by yesterday’s news out of Arizona, where Kyrsten Sinema was finally confirmed as the state’s new senator, beating out Republican Martha McSally. The drawn-out count was calmer than in Florida, despite Trump’s attempts to undermine it. Over the weekend, Arizona’s Republican secretary of state even published a blog post explaining the delay.
- “A dangerous problem”: The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan says the media’s rush for firm electoral conclusions does more harm than good. “By giving in to the impulse to analyze immediately, journalists and pundits feed the notion that the election should be over on election night,” she writes. “Hard as it is to do—or even consider—in our crazily speeded-up news environment, there’s only one lesson for the media from the past week: Slow the hell down.”
- Doing it all again: Tonight, CNN will broadcast a second election-night special (one week after its first) to update viewers on the shifting midterms picture.
Other notable stories:
- As the wildfire in northern California became the deadliest in the state’s recorded history yesterday, Poynter’s David Beard checked in with San Francisco Chronicle Editor Audrey Cooper. "We have a cohort of reporters and photographers who love to do this work because they see how important it is firsthand to the community. They all will take addresses from readers and use their access to check on houses,” Cooper wrote back. “It’s important work, but exhausting, and I know it kills them when they can’t get to them all. Last year during the Wine Country fires I remember telling reporters that, yes, it was OK to expense underwear. They were out that long.”
- A member of the hit squad that killed the Saudi dissident writer Jamal Khashoggi in the country’s Istanbul consulate last month subsequently told a superior to inform his “boss”—believed to be a reference to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Times reports. Bin Salman has denied coordinating Khashoggi’s murder.
- CJR’s Alexandria Neason spoke with Nancy Barnes, the (now former) editor of the Houston Chronicle, after an external investigation into a reporter at the paper failed to find 44 percent of the sources quoted in 744 of his stories. The investigation stopped short of stating that Ward made people up, however. “You can’t prove someone is not out there,” Barnes told Neason. “We laid out the facts as we found them and phrased it very carefully for that reason, and let people come to their own conclusions.” Barnes will soon take over as senior vice president of news at NPR.
- Jerome Corsi, the former Washington bureau chief of conspiracy-peddling site Infowars, told viewers of his YouTube show Monday that he expects to be indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller in the coming days. Corsi and his associate Roger Stone have come under Mueller’s spotlight recently over alleged ties to WikiLeaks’s “October Surprise” dump of emails from inside Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
- Nikki Delamotte, a culture reporter with Cleveland.com, was killed on Monday in an apparent homicide. Her colleague Evan MacDonald rounded up tributes from inside the newsroom.
- The BBC published two major reports on why ordinary citizens share fake news, looking, respectively, at Nigeria and Kenya and India. “How ordinary citizens feel about a story can be more important than fact-checking when it comes to sharing news,” the authors of the Nigeria and Kenya report write.
- For CJR’s print issue on race and journalism, Eric Deggans spoke with David Simon, who drew on his work as a cops reporter at The Baltimore Sun to create the hit TV series The Wire.