Blog ››› ››› JULIE ALDERMAN
Politico perpetuated a false equivalency between claims from Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump of a “rigged” election, which are grounded in conspiracy theories and right-wing myths, and worries from Democrats, including Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, that Russia is attempting to interfere with the election, which are based on recent precedent and intelligence.
In a September 28 article claiming both Clinton and Trump are engaging in a “conspiracy theory” and “feed[ing] the rigged-election charge,” Politico explained that Trump and his allies have been “sounding the alarm since summer that the results in battleground states – from Ohio to Florida – will be fixed so he’ll lose.” The report went on to erroneously equate Trump’s claim with worries from Democrats, including Clinton, that Russia could be “‘attempting to influence the outcome of the election,’” writing:
But Trump isn’t the only one who warns the election is being tampered with.
Clinton’s campaign contends that the Republican’s shadowy connections to Russia may be tied to the slow release of hacked emails meant to embarrass the Democrat to the point that she loses in November. While Obama said in an NBC interview in July that “anything’s possible” when it comes to Russia’s attempts to influence the presidential election, the U.S. government still hasn’t officially named a culprit in the hackings.
“It’s a fascinating question, and an important question, and an alarming question when the Russian government appears to be attempting to influence the outcome of the election,” Clinton spokesman Glen Caplin said in a recent interview.
At an August 1 rally, Trump baselessly asserted that he’s “afraid the election’s going to be rigged.” Trump went on to double down on his claim, adding that without voter ID laws, people “are going to vote 10 times.” Trump was widely denounced by journalists for his claims. The New York Times editorial board called his comments “not just ludicrous, but dangerous.” And Talking Points Memo editor John Marshall wrote that Trump used “this canard to lay the groundwork for rejecting the result of a national election.”
Trump’s claims are grounded in conspiracy theories and misinformation. Trump ally and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones asserted on August 1 that Clinton “stole the primary” and is “going to try to steal the general election.” Fellow conspiracy theorist and Trump ally Roger Stone urged Trump to raise the issue of a “rigged” election on the July 29 edition of The Milo Yiannopoulos Show, saying, “I think we have widespread voter fraud, but the first thing Trump needs to do is begin talking about it constantly.” Fox News hosts and contributors helped mainstream these conspiracy theories, arguing that talking about the possibility of rigged elections is “an important discussion to have going into the election.”
Trump’s claims are linked to conservative myths used to push for discriminatory voter ID laws. Right-wing media have repeatedly pushed myths about in-person voter fraud, arguing that denying voter fraud exists “is to frankly deny reality.” Academic studies, however, have found that “voter fraud is vanishingly rare” and that voter ID laws largely disenfranchise minority voters.
Concerns that Democrats, including Clinton, have raised about Russian interference in the election, however, are grounded in recent precedent and government intelligence. The New York Times reported that intelligence officials “have ‘high confidence’ that the Russian government was behind the theft of emails and documents from the Democratic National Committee” this summer. Russia is also suspected of having hacked into the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s computer system.
The FBI also said there is evidence that Russian hackers “targeted voter registration systems in Illinois and Arizona.” In addition, on September 22, the Democratic ranking members on the Senate and House Intelligence Committees warned, “Based on briefings we have received, we have concluded that the Russian intelligence agencies are making a serious and concerted effort to influence the US election.” Given Trump’s reported ties to Russia, including the connections of some of his current and former senior campaign staff, the idea that Russia would want to sway the election is not unrealistic.
Politico’s false equivalence of these two accusations is made more incredulous by the article’s acknowledgment that “Clinton and many other election watchers are not flying blind in making this allegation” about Russian interference, and the article detailed some of the evidence behind the concern.
But this is hardly the first time media outlets have applied false equivalency during this election. For example, numerous reports claimed that Trump and Clinton were “exchang[ing] racially charged attacks” after Trump claimed that Clinton is a “bigot.” But Trump’s remarks consisted only of outlandish, evidence-free insults while Clinton reasonably and accurately described Trump’s racist rhetoric and very real ties to white nationalists and the "alt-right."
False equivalency is a dangerous practice journalists use to give both sides equal weight, even when there is a clear right and wrong. By perpetuating in this false dichotomy, media outlets are doing disservice to their audiences.