by Joshua Cho
Even though President Donald Trump had telegraphed his intent months in advance to steal the 2020 election, by planning to get judges, state legislators and/or the Electoral College to illegitimately declare him the winner—laying out a pretext by lying about widespread voter fraud—corporate media were slow to accurately convey the reality and significance of Trump’s election theft efforts. I’ve noted twice before (FAIR.org, 9/15/20, 11/5/20) that corporate media betrayed their journalistic responsibilities by refusing to report, outside the context of opinion columns, that Trump has been attempting a coup, despite all the plain evidence.
Yet in the past few days, it seems corporate media have decided to report on Trump’s attempts to subvert the election and overturn its results as a fact, not as a matter of opinion. Here are some recent headlines:
- Wall Street Journal (11/19/20): “Trump Broadens His Efforts to Overturn Election Outcome”
- New York Times (11/19/20): “Trump’s Attempts to Overturn the Election Are Unparalleled in US History”
- NPR (11/20/20): “The Growing Backlash Against Trump’s Efforts to Subvert the Election”
- Associated Press (11/20/20): “Trump Tries to Leverage Power of Office to Subvert Biden Win”
- Politico (11/21/20): “Trump Calls on GOP Legislatures to Overturn Election Results”
- CNN (11/22/20): “Trump’s Attempt to Steal the Election Unravels as Coronavirus Cases Surge”
To be clear, although coverage has improved to more accurately describe what’s going on in the US, the media failure to report the facts much earlier is inexcusable. Considering that corporate media ran op-eds (e.g., The Week, 8/11/20; USA Today, 8/16/20), letters to the editor (e.g., Washington Post, 8/21/20), stating the undeniable fact that Trump has been trying to steal the election months in advance, in addition to reporting on Trump’s subversion efforts in real time, they cannot credibly feign ignorance.
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However, while corporate media appear to have stopped downplaying Trump’s election theft efforts for now, they have also run cover for the Republican Party’s complicity in enabling and actively assisting Trump’s efforts, as Trump cannot steal the election on his own.
The New York Times report “Who’s Going to Tell Him? Republicans Shy From Asking Trump to Concede” (11/10/20) employed the language one would use to describe family members unsure how to confront an embarrassing relative, rather than a major political party enabling election theft with its silence. The lackadaisical report described how neither major factions of the Republican Party—Trump’s “most ardent followers” who defend him “at all costs,” or the “tenuous, strained alliance with the rest, who share his agenda but often cringe privately at his language and tactics”—are “particularly well suited for the chore of trying to persuade Mr. Trump” to “step aside,” or to “stop spreading claims about the integrity of the nation’s elections that are contrary to considerable evidence.”
At other times, corporate media articles like Axios’ “The Electoral College Play” (11/11/20) reported on the Republican Party’s coup attempt as if it were a mere competitive sports strategy:
As the weaknesses of President Trump’s legal cases to overturn Joe Biden’s win become clearer, Republicans are talking more about the Electoral College — hinting at an extreme last-chance way for Trump to cling to power.
What we’re watching: In this long-shot scenario, Trump and his team could try to block secretaries of state in contested states from certifying results. That could allow legislatures in those states to try to appoint new electors who favor Trump over Biden.
When Trump’s “most ardent followers” like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated in a press conference that “there will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration” in response to a question about whether the State Department is preparing to coordinate with an incoming Biden administration, corporate media didn’t report on Pompeo’s shocking remarks as if he was an accomplice to an attempt to overturn a democratic election:
- USA Today (11/10/20): “Despite Election Results Showing Biden Win, Pompeo Said He Expects ‘Transition to a Second Trump Administration’”
- NBC News (11/10/20): “’There Will be a Smooth Transition to a Second Trump Administration,’ Pompeo Claims”
- NPR (11/10/20): “Pompeo Promises ‘a Smooth Transition to a Second Trump Administration’”
- Politico (11/10/20): “Pompeo Promises ‘Smooth Transition to Second Trump Administration’ as World Leaders Congratulate Biden”
And when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, one of the highest-ranking Republican officials, stated that Trump is entitled to launch frivolous and fraudulent lawsuits, corporate media didn’t spell out the full significance of his statements—which amount to an insistence that elected officials have a right to resist being voted out of office:
- Washington Post (11/9/20): “After Biden Win, McConnell Backs Trump’s Legal Challenges to Election Results”
- Fox News (11/9/20): “McConnell Backs Trump Legal Fight in Election Results”
- CBS News (11/9/20): “2020 Daily Trail Markers: McConnell Takes Victory Lap and Backs Trump’s Refusal to Concede”
- Politico (11/9/20): McConnell-Led Republicans Hold Steady Against Trump Concession”
- New York Times (11/9/20): “Republicans Back Trump’s Refusal to Concede, Declining to Recognize Biden”
Why shouldn’t corporate media highlight McConnell and the rest of the Republican Party’s complicity in enabling Trump’s subversion, running headlines like “Republicans Support Trump’s Attempt to Subvert Election,” or “McConnell Endorses Trump’s Attempt to Overturn Election Results,” instead of functioning as stenographers? One possible explanation for this obfuscation is that corporate media seek to prop up the legitimacy of the Republican/Democrat duopoly in US electoral politics (which disenfranchises popular progressive ideas that threaten both major parties’ corporate donors), by maintaining the illusion of the Republican Party as a legitimate and normal political party.
It’s not just leftist political commentators like Noam Chomsky (Salon, 9/23/15) who characterize the Republican Party as a “radical insurgency” with views “off the spectrum of not only international opinion, but even relative sanity.” Even establishment political commentators like Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein from the American Enterprise Institute and Brookings Institution (Washington Post, 4/27/12) have claimed years ago that the Republican Party is “the core of the problem” for why Washington politics is so “dysfunctional”:
As I See It
The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.
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Thankfully, although one can still find infuriatingly passive headlines like the Times’ “Republicans in Congress Stay Largely in Line Behind Trump” (11/20/20), corporate media have recently begun to move in the direction of condemning the Republican Party’s enabling of Trump’s coup attempt, or at least highlighting their complicity:
- Associated Press (11/21/20): “Analysis: With Silence, GOP Enables Trump’s Risky Endgame”
- Washington Post (11/20/20): “Most Republicans Greet Trump’s Push to Overturn the Election With a Customary Response: Silence”
- Vanity Fair (11/16/20): “Republicans Suddenly Much Too Busy to Defend Trump’s Election Lies on TV”
While some may argue that the media refusal to describe Trump’s ongoing coup attempt as such is an insignificant semantic squabble because it doesn’t seem likely to happen at the moment, particularly now that the Trump administration has recognized President-Elect Joe Biden’s right to plan for a transition, it’s a mistake to think it won’t have any meaningful consequences simply because it won’t succeed.
Journalist David Sirota (Guardian, 11/12/20) pointed out that Trump and the Republican Party’s efforts are designed as much to “generate headlines as they are to win rulings and initiate prosecutions,” in order to convince public opinion that there is significant electoral fraud.
Vox founder Ezra Klein (11/7/20) pointed out that Trump is trying to create something
akin to an autocracy-in-exile, an alternative America in which he is the rightful leader, and he — and the public he claims to represent — has been robbed of power by corrupt elites.
This coup attempt, he writes,
has made clear that would-be autocrats have a path to power in the United States, and if they can walk far enough down that path, an entire political party will support them, and protect them.
A Morning Consult/Politico (11/9/20) found that 70% of Republicans don’t believe that the 2020 election was free and fair, which is a stark increase from the 35% of Republicans who believed so before the election. If enough Republicans are convinced that their electoral defeats can only be explained by Democrats cheating, this could potentially incite massive reactionary violence, led by an opportunist political party determined to maintain minority rule at any cost (Washington Post, 11/12/20). This is why it’s important for media to forcefully report and denounce these coup attempts in real-time.