Journalists Need to Be Clear About a Clear Threat to Democracy

Despite abundant evidence, corporate media so far have treated the question of whether Trump is trying to steal the election as a matter of opinion.
[Matt Johnson / CC BY 2.0]

By Joshua Cho / FAIR

When the president of the United States has:

…then the evidence threshold has been more than satisfied for journalists to declare that he is trying to steal the 2020 election. Journalists and newsrooms have an obligation to report that the most powerful person in the country is trying to subvert the election and retain power illegitimately, and a failure to blow the whistle on a clear threat to democracy is journalistic malpractice.

USA Today: Trump has a plan to steal the election and it's not clear Democrats have a plan to stop him

Despite abundant evidence, corporate media so far have treated the question of whether Trump is trying to steal the election as a matter of opinion (USA Today8/16/20).

Yet, while one can find several op-eds (e.g., The Week8/11/20USA Today8/16/20) pointing out the obvious fact of President Donald Trump trying to steal the 2020 election, it appears to be taboo for journalists at the biggest newsrooms in the country to straightforwardly report the fact that Trump is trying to do so.

The ACLU’s Dale Ho (Vanity Fair6/14/20), an attorney fighting against GOP voter suppression lawsuits, has argued that, ultimately, lawyers cannot litigate their way out of Trump’s election theft efforts, and that a “news media fight” has to be waged to prepare US voters’ expectations. However, it’s hard for US citizens to prepare if the US media aren’t reporting that Trump is trying to steal the election.

FAIR conducted a Nexis search for “Trump” + “election” + “steal” of the New York TimesWashington PostWall Street JournalHouston ChronicleChicago TribuneStar TribuneLos Angeles Times and USA Today—most of the biggest newspapers in the country by circulation—from July 7 to September 7. Out of all the results pertaining to the election, there wasn’t a single article reporting that Trump is trying to steal the 2020 election.

The closest things one can find to corporate media plainly stating that Trump is attempting to commit election theft are various scenarios of how Trump could steal the election, columns asking what would happen if Trump refused to concede the election if he lost, or reports on Democratic Party politicians asserting that Trump is trying to steal the election.

WaPo: Here’s one way Trump could try to steal the election, voting experts say

The news articles that do discuss the ongoing efforts to steal the election frame it as a hypothetical possibility (Washington Post8/16/20).

Slate (8/3/20) and the Washington Post (8/16/20) ran articles describing how Trump could potentially steal the election by “blocking the counting of mail-in ballots,” because more Democrats are in favor of mail-in ballots—which take longer to be counted—and the potential for Trump to prematurely “declare himself the victor” should initial results based on in-person voting show him winning. That’s in addition to preventing the Postal Service from delivering mail-in ballots to voters and to elected officials promptly.

Investigative journalist Greg Palast (Salon8/25/20) argues that “the real theft of the 2020 presidential election is not the lack of mailboxes,” but the “lack of commitment to counting ballots by both parties.” Mail-in voting and absentee ballots are already rejected at a much higher rate than in-person voting, especially from younger and minority voters, and some projections are estimating that absentee ballot rejections could be tripled in battleground states for November (AP9/7/20).

There have been reports of Democratic Party politicians like Beto O’Rourke (Houston Chronicle5/13/20) and Joe Biden (Washington Post, 7/23/20) warning that they believe Trump will “do everything within his power” to steal the election, and that “this president is going to try to indirectly steal the election by arguing that mail-in ballots don’t work.” However, corporate media also give space for Trump to air his accusations that it’s Democrats who are trying to commit election theft (Politico7/31/20Fox News8/20/20The Hill8/24/20), making this more “he said, she said” reporting, rather than an independent assessment of Trump’s plans and actions.

Other outlets ran articles (New Yorker7/21/20Washington Post7/22/20Politico9/4/20) and op-eds (CNN8/17/20) considering different scenarios of what could happen if Trump refused to leave office if he loses the election. Other op-eds (Washington Post, 7/9/208/18/20) essentially advised Americans to trust the “bureaucracy and legal procedure,” even if it might “sound naive,” because “there are laws that stop others from using the authorities of the Executive Branch on behalf of anyone other than the legitimate president.” There are also laws forbidding officials from using government property for political purposes, but that didn’t stop the Trump campaign from turning the White House into a stage set for the Republican National Convention.

While contemplating different scenarios is valuable, these articles presume that American citizens are supposed to be passive spectators, rather than active political participants, since they include no calls to action, as a few other op-eds have (Intercept8/11/20New York Times, 9/3/20). Neither do such articles point out why Americans need to contemplate these scenarios in the first place: President Donald Trump is trying to steal the election.

Politico: ‘We’ll put them down very quickly’: Trump threatens to quash election night riots

By referring to protests against assertions of re-election victory as an “insurrection,” Trump is threatening to use the military to enforce his claim to power—an anti-democratic stance Politico (9/11/20) legitimizes by referring to such protests as “riots.”

A bipartisan group of about 80 political operatives and academics have played out various scenarios where Trump loses the election but refuses to concede, and several of them have ended in violence (Newsweek7/26/20). Trump has already stated he would “very quickly” suppress Election Night protests against his claims of victory—what he calls an “insurrection,” a term that outlets like The Hill (9/11/20) and Politico (9/11/20) bolster by calling protests against his reelection “riots.”

Trump’s rhetoric seems to echo that of his longtime confidant (and convicted felon) Roger Stone’s advice for Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807 to declare martial law to seize power if “cheating” costs him the election.

Michael Caputo, assistant secretary for public affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services (who serves as a sort of political commissar over the CDC), likewise asserted that Trump and his supporters will need to use force to defend Trump’s impending victory against false charges that he didn’t actually win: “When Donald Trump refuses to stand down at the inauguration, the shooting will begin,” Caputo said in a video posted to Facebook.  “If you carry guns, buy ammunition, ladies and gentlemen, because it’s going to be hard to get.”

It’s especially important for US media to inform their audiences about Trump’s election-theft efforts, because the US Constitution doesn’t actually grant citizens the right to vote for the president—only a college of electors [does]—with states having nearly unlimited power to decide how those electors are chosen (Atlantic, 3/29/20). Republican politicians have been almost entirely steadfast and uniform in their support of Trump, to the point that they have no official platform other than his reelection, and refused to even hold hearings when he was impeached by the House for abuse of power. Legal scholar Lawrence Douglas (Vox6/3/20) pointed out that there are no federal laws or constitutional procedures to guide Americans in a contested election where neither side refuses to concede, since the peaceful succession of power relies more on norms (which Trump regularly runs roughshod over) than on laws or institutions.

If the 2020 election is stolen, it wouldn’t be the first time in US history. In 1876, following the Hayes/Tilden election, electoral results in four states were contested, with Democratic and Republican officials sending competing electoral certificates to a divided Congress—a situation the Twelfth Amendment (which lays out the procedure for electing a president and vice president) doesn’t say anything about. (In the event, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, who received 47.9% of the popular vote to Democrat Samuel Tilden’s 50.9%, was declared president in the Compromise of 1877, which involved withdrawing federal troops from former Confederate states and the end of Reconstruction.)

NYT: Tradition and Legitimacy

The establishment media’s first instinct is to legitimize illegitimate power (New York Times1/21/01).

In 2000, in Bush v. Gore, the Supreme Court bestowed the presidency on George W. Bush by stopping the recount of Florida votes—an usurpation strenuously assisted by corporate media (Extra!3–4/01), as exemplified by a front-page news analysis in the New York Times (1/21/01)  in which R.W. Apple assured readers that images of the Oval Office and the sounds of “Hail to the Chief” are really what “confer the mantle of authority and legitimacy on a leader.”

While FAIR  (9/27/19, 11/22/19) has often criticized the false objectivity of news coverage in the Trump era, the division between the news and opinion sections still remains a valuable distinction because of the implication that straight news coverage deals with delivering factual information, which leaves less room for disagreement. When the media are unable to present as fact that Trump is trying to steal the 2020 election, they are implying that there is room for debate about what his intentions are, simply because he hasn’t explicitly stated: “I am trying to steal the election.”

Trump is already notorious for lying, cheating and stealing, and has every motive to steal the election because he’s behind in the polls, and once he leaves office faces the possibility of prosecution for crimes he has already confessed to committing. During this critical time, it’s important for US media not to propagate the myth of US exceptionalism, which often makes false accusations of “election theft” against Global South countries like Bolivia and Venezuela, and misleads Americans into thinking election theft “can’t happen” here because the US has more “legitimate” institutions. US elections have been stolen before, and it’s important to make sure another election isn’t stolen again.

Joshua Cho
Joshua Cho

Joshua Cho (@JoshC0301) is a writer based in Virginia.


  1. apparently trump isn’t fascist, racist enough–the only president that hasn’t attacked another nation in 75 years
    presstitutes are not journalists; US media, academia the most censored on the planet……yet amerikans cherish fake news—they believe there are WMD’s in Grenada—go invade another defenseless nation

  2. Yes, by late 2019, Democrats began setting the stage to blame-away an expected 2020 defeat. There were a couple of efforts this yearto breathe some life back into Russiagate, but by mid-summer, Dems expanded to the usual allegations of mass voter fraud, deceptions, dirty tricks, etc. We already spent years pointing to that deep, growing split in the former Dem voting base, which party loyalists chose to ignore.

  3. Joshua Cho is spot on here; I especially like his emphasis that Trump’s well-documented election theft should be a matter of factual journalism rather than mere op-ed responses.

    I go Joshua one better; I think Trump’s election theft–and above all, his DANGEROUS refusal to peacefully accept an election loss–is a question of actual fascist tyranny. I explore the logical response–in a society that CLAIMS the Second Amendment is our ultimate safeguard against tyranny–in a VERY controversial current article:

    Hoping Scheerpost readers will deeply ponder the questions I raise.

    1. more evidence that amerikan liberals are nazis; obviously in all civilized nations the left wing advocates for gun freedom—the right wing opposes it….u amerikans are exceptional…exceptionally fascist

      1. “more evidence amerikan liberals are nazis”–who’s the one engaged in angry, vilifying rhetoric and straw-man stereotyping, therefore sounding much more like a nazi here?

        First off, I don’t consider myself a “liberal,” which in the U.S. is pretty much a synonym for fans of a Democratic Party I as a leftist happen to despise. That doesn’t desensitize me to Trump being a dangerous fascist demagogue–a racist, democracy-hating science denier and creator of his own alternate reality–who MUST be stopped. I plan to choke back my vomit and vote for Biden and urge my fellow U.S. leftists to do the same.

        I wrote a very nuanced article, which folks who fling around loose, angry rhetoric like yours probably lack the nuance to understand. Americans own the most guns per capita in the world–and are no freer for the fact. Trump offers the best practical test ever for whether our guns deter tyranny (because he’s clearly a tyrant), so I called right-wing gun nuts’ bluff and offered this as a test case. At least in this instance, I’m a U.S. leftist ADVOCATING threatened gun use as a tyranny deterrent. But I’m skeptical precisely because right-wing gun nuts–who generally adore Trump and would willingly serve as his fascist brownshirts–won’t back me on a question of principle.

        Finally, being anti-2nd Amendment does NOT equate with being anti-gun. There are legitimate disagreements about the role guns should play in a modern civilized society (assuming such is our goal), and the 2nd Amendment, by its outdated reference to militias and its glib assumption that “keeping and bearing arms” is a RIGHT, sabotages rational democratic discussion of the issue. Its irrelevant language doesn’t relate in any clear way to our times, leaving courts to decide the matter politically and autocratically, when rational democratic discussion related to our own times should decide.

  4. it is expected amongst a stupefied population that a despicable corrupt Biden is preferred by ruling class apologists…it is the mask slavery liberals that hate freedom
    nicaragua—no robots with masks, nothing ever closed—lowest covid fatality rate in Western Hemisphere along with Uruguay that rejected covid fascism
    apparently actual socialists do cherish freedom

    1. Again, little appreciation for nuance. Could the low numbers of Covid-19 deaths in Uruguay and Nicaragua have ANYTHING to do with their being low-population countries with low population densities (Uruguay 99th and Nicaragua 155th on density)? These low densities make it probable the number of outside visitors is likewise comparatively small. Someone who wasn’t arguing simply as an ideologue would at least consider these facts.

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