Media WATCHCommentary by R. Clinton Ohlers
In all the analysis surrounding The Washington Post’s admission of printing false quotes, purportedly by then-President Donald Trump during a call about the investigation of voter fraud in Georgia, the most telling and troubling element of the story has yet to be told.
We can no longer ignore the ongoing pattern of the major media’s complicity and active role in not merely disseminating misinformation but in their public criminalization of political opposition.
For all the well-deserved opprobrium unleashed on the Post and the outlets that falsely claimed to have confirmed the fiction, the WSJ, credited with forcing the correction was also equally a part of the same misrepresentation.
Together the two stories represent more than an isolated scandal, they represent an anatomy of journalism as political warfare. They represent wholesale manipulation of democracy, with personal destruction as a favored means, false narrative the favored tool, and criminalization of opponents the favored outcome.
Things are not looking good for the American Republic.
The wrap-up smear
The Post story in question appeared after three calls made by Trump to Georgia state officials.
Already on Jan. 3, the Post printed an account of Trump’s call the previous day that portrayed the president as pressuring Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger not to undo election fraud but to commit it. The Raffensperger story, however, gained little traction beyond Democratic Party loyalists due to the fact both the recording of the call and the transcript were readily available for review by anyone who cared to do so.
By contrast, the Jan. 9 story concerned an earlier call between the president and chief investigator of the Georgia Secretary of State’s office, Frances Watson, on Dec. 23. Direct quotes appeared to affirm in stronger terms what the president’s opponents insisted the Raffensperger call implied. It also established a pattern.
This time, however, there was no transcript or recording. The story had come from an anonymous source. Within days NBC ABC, USA Today, CNN, and tax-supported PBS announced to a global audience that each had “independently confirmed” the account. To those in public then innocent to the use and “confirmation” of “anonymous sources,” the testimony was overwhelming.
Later that month, the House impeachment managers included the Post’s quotes word for word as evidence in the impeachment brief submitted to the Senate.
Two months later, the impeachment was over, Trump survived the Senate vote, and at the same time many Americans were by now comfortably settled into their belief the president and his supporters willfully intended to overturn a legitimate election and do so by unconstitutional, even criminal and possibly violent means.
It was then that the original recording of Trump’s Dec. 23 call surfaced.
The source was the very same Georgia Secretary of State’s office that in January so insistently refused to investigate the election results in the manner Trump, his supporters, and most conservative voters across America had desired.
As Molly Hemingway chronicled on March 17, Raffensperger’s office not only raised concerns of a an inadequate investigation, it unleashed a relentless and unremitting stream of dirty tricks and bare-faced lies directed toward the purposes of averting a court hearing over the state’s election and preventing release of the election data they possessed. At the center of many of these episodes was Raffensperger’s hand-picked Deputy Secretary of State, an active social-media Never Trumper, Jordan Fuchs.
This office now provided a remarkable account of its latest sleuthing. As if in homage to Peter Sellers’ iconic Clouseau, the audio file of chief investigator Ms. Watson’s history-making, once in several lifetimes call with a sitting president, so remarkably and inexplicably deleted, had just been discovered in no other than the very first place any rational human being would seek to find a deleted file — the trash bin.
The offending statements, it turns out, never existed.
“Trump did not tell the investigator to ‘find the fraud,’” the Post informed, “or say she would be ‘a national hero’ if she did so. Instead, Trump urged the investigator to scrutinize ballots in Fulton County, Ga., asserting she would find ‘dishonesty’ there. He also told her that she had ‘the most important job in the country right now.’ ”
Now a party to whole-cloth fiction, the unavoidable question became whether the Post’s reporter, Amy Gardner, actually ever had a source or had simply invented the quotes. Eager to salvage credibility, the Post revealed its anonymous source: Jordan Fuchs.
In other words, the incident now has all the characteristics of a political “wrap-up smear,” perpetrated by the Georgia Secretary of State’s office and willingly repeated by the press. Nancy Pelosi famously described the wrap-up smear tactic with lighthearted candor and nonchalance in 2017:
If you want to talk politics. We call it the wrap-up smear. You smear somebody with falsehoods and all the rest and then you merchandise it and then you write it and they’ll say, see, it’s reported in the press that this, this, this and this, so they have that validation that the press reported the smear and then it’s called a wrap-up smear. Now I am going to merchandise the press’ report on the smear that we made. It’s a tactic.“Independent confirmation” meant at most that reporters at the corroborating media outlets may have received calls separately from Ms. Fuchs or others in the Georgia Secretary of State’s office and repeated the story with no further investigation.
Placement in a House impeachment report was the merchandizing.
What is most notable about Cameron McWhirter’s WSJ article, “Trump Call to Georgia Lead Investigator Reveals New Details,” is not how it corrects the misperception created by the Post. It does not. What is notable is how it perpetuates that misperception and advances the purpose of the smear. Nowhere, for example, does he reveal that the previously-reported remarks were absent. Nothing in the article indicates the new details undermine, much less disprove, the fictional account in any way.
The topic of the title also is not the subject of most of the article. The remaining sections repeat the characterization of the Raffensperger call invented by Trump’s opponents. Announcement follows of a recently launched criminal investigation aimed at Donald Trump by Democrat and District Attorney of Fulton County, Francis Willis.
The Raffensperger material preserves the very narrative threatened by the Watson’s audio file. The article functions to support Willis’ criminal investigation by advancing a narrative necessary to the public image that investigation. That it does so by design could hardly be clearer.
The language, for example, is identical:
“Mr Trump urged Mr. Raffensperger to “find” votes to change the election outcome,” McWhirter writes. “He berated Raffensperger for not doing more to overturn the election.” Meanwhile, “Fanni Willis has launched a criminal investigation into alleged efforts to have officials in Georgia overturn the state’s results of November’s presidential election.”
Where the Post achieved a falsehood by reporting fictional quotes, the WSJ achieves the same with real quotes divorced from their obvious literal context and their legal context. The description of vocal tones that are calm and measured as berating reinforces the falsehood.
The literal context of Trump’s request “to find” votes, is Trump’s just-stated belief he had won Georgia akin to the margin in Florida, by hundreds of thousands of votes. The legal context is that the Georgia Supreme Court had ruled that adequately to challenge an election a challenger is need only to demonstrate that there were enough irregular votes or election procedure violations to place the outcome in doubt.
A fraud sizable enough to overcome a several-hundred-thousand-vote lead could be expected to contain enough identifiably fraudulent votes to allow sincere investigators “to find” a mere 11,780 necessary to prevent that fraud from succeeding. The urging was not to change or overturn the outcome of the election but to restore it.
Moreover, as the transcript of the full call and the details of the lawsuit reveal, the legal standards were already believed to have been exceeded by several orders of magnitude. The Secretary of State’s office merely needed independently to find a small portion of what already had been found. As many as:
• 66,247 underage registrants
• 8,718 voters registered as deceased before their votes were received
• 1,597 registered as deceased by election day
• 2,560 felons
• 1,043 who claimed the P.O. boxes as physical address, thereby invalidating their votes
• 4,926 who registered in another state after registering in Georgia
• 2,423 people who were not found on the states voter rolls
• 395 who cast votes in another state in addition to Georgia
• 56,077 invalid for technical, but not necessarily fraudulent, reasons such as moving counties without re-registering
In other words, 85,349 undeniably ineligible votes in an election decided by less that 12,000. Votes by the dead and felons could surpass the threshold. Never mind the 66,000 underage voters.
Rather than “berate” Raffensperger “to overturn,” the president cautions him about the illegality of reporting false election results, a risk he believes will become a reality if allegations of voter fraud are not adequately investigated.
Molly Hemingway comments: "Anyone familiar with the lawsuit knew Trump was saying his team had already “found” nearly 150,000 irregular or fraudulent votes and simply needed the secretary of state’s office to agree. He was saying they didn’t need to agree that all 150,000 were bad, just that fewer than 10 percent of them were problematic."
The secretary of state and his team kept asserting that Trump’s figures were wrong. Trump’s legal team kept asking Raffensperger to provide the state data and information that would enable them to see for themselves. For some reason, Raffensperger and his team have never been willing to share their data or reports.
The willingness by so many parties to give rise to and publicly justify a politically-motivated criminal investigation in spite of the knowledge of such exonerating evidence is chilling.
It is also a practice the major media show no signs of abandoning.
R. Clinton Ohlers, PhD is a historian of science and religion and a contributing editor for the FreePressMediaGroup. Previously, he held the position of Research Assistant Professor in the Humanities at the University of Hong Kong. His book, The Birth of the Conflict Between Science and Religion, is scheduled to appear in 2022. His PhD in history is from the University of Pennsylvania.
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