ABC’s “This Week” made the poor journalistic choice on Sunday to air interviews with Trump voters who made irrational, fact-free claims — or simply revealed their inability to cope with reality. Sorry, but a Trump voter declaring he simply cannot believe President-elect Joe Biden got 78 million votes is not news; it is evidence of participation in a mass delusion.
Allowing a voter to claim that election officials keep “finding” ballots in heavily Democratic areas without extensively debunking the assertion, rather than devoting a single sentence to refuting that person, is misleading to viewers and undermines truth and the democratic process. What is the point of having someone, in this case Ohio voter Laird Eric Wells, rage that “when we deal with globalists and liberalism, I would put absolutely nothing past them. There’s no way. It just doesn’t — doesn’t smell right, too many irregularities”?
The first responsibility of journalism in a time of rampant disinformation and assaults on reality is to refuse to provide a platform for conspiracy-mongers. Letting them on without directly confronting them only grants legitimacy to lies.
After that harrowing opening, ABC’s Martha Raddatz had this exchange with former national security adviser John Bolton:
RADDATZ: You just heard what those voters said about this election. More than 72 million are not seeing the outcome they wanted, and the nation really is deeply divided. There were thousands of Trump supporters marching in D.C. yesterday.
How does your party, the Republican Party, address that?
JOHN BOLTON, FORMER TRUMP NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Well, I think it’s very important for leaders of the Republican Party to explain to our voters, who are not as stupid as the Democrats think, that in fact Trump has lost the election and his claims of election fraud are baseless.
The fact is that we’ve seen litigation in all the key battleground states, and it has failed consistently. Right now, the Trump campaign is doing the legal equivalent of pitching pennies. Where are their silver dollars? Where is the evidence?
I think as every day goes by, it’s clearer and clearer there isn’t any evidence. But if the Republican voters are only hearing Donald Trump’s misrepresentations, it’s not surprising that they believe it.
It’s critical for other Republican leaders to stand up and explain what actually happened. Donald Trump lost what by any evidence we have so far was a free and fair election.
Let’s unpack that.
For starters, there is no evidence that all 73 million Americans who voted for Trump are delusional. Some, including those ABC interviewed, appear to be. Suggesting all Republicans are delusional authoritarians is not just insulting but also wrong.
Second, Bolton’s suggestion that Democrats think Republicans are stupid is a sly way of fomenting resentment, the very attitude that has convinced millions of Americans that they are victims and facing an existential crisis. This is the mentality that put Republicans in this position of intellectual contortion and the country in a nearly ungovernable state. I think it is helpful to point out, and Bolton would be just the person to do it, that many, if not most, Republican leaders in Congress do not buy the rubbish, but they think voters want to hear it.
Third, Bolton is right that if “Republican voters are only hearing Donald Trump’s misrepresentations, it’s not surprising that they believe it.” But of course, the greatest source of that information is right-wing media where Bolton, a former Fox News contributor, has been a familiar presence. And that brings us to a central dilemma: While Bolton gets points for calling out spineless Republicans, telling them it’s time to “stand up,” he and other Republicans who do not want their party to remain a right-wing nationalist party dependent on the race-baiting and narratives that run counter to reality must take on the right-wing media that has done so much to shape the GOP.
Fox News’s news personnel and election decision desk did an admirable job on election night. In subsequent days, they reaffirmed that Biden won key states and then the entire race. However, the conspiracy-mongers and ludicrous partisans are back on its opinion programs. Lawyer Sidney Powell was free to spew every bizzaro conspiracy and false claim in the book on Maria Bartiromo’s Fox Business show. That is unacceptable; Fox News executives are spoon-feeding lies to their viewers, undermining free and fair elections, and widening the gap between pro-Trump viewers and reality. “Fox & Friends” remains a safe space for Trump conspiracies and the people who promote them.
Mainstream media needs to do a much better job denying a platform to irrational voices who operate in a fact-free world. Republicans need to police not only their own fellow Republicans but also the right-wing media that helps to radicalize their base and makes its viewers paranoid, ill-informed and angry. And Fox News needs to decide if it wants to be a news organization with opinion shows or a disinformation machine that tears at the fabric of our democracy.
Jennifer Rubin writes reported opinion for The Washington Post.