The Republican National Committee is sending out deceptive mailers to voters ahead of the 2020 census, and MSNBC is the only national television news outlet that has covered these misleading and potentially illegal solicitations, which have led to confusion across the country. This lack of media coverage threatens the integrity of the upcoming census count, which has already begun in remote areas of Alaska and will officially begin nationwide on March 12.
The new survey, titled “2020 Congressional District Census” and labeled “official document” and “do not destroy,” inquires about recipients’ attitudes toward GOP policies, whether they support President Donald Trump, their preferred media outlets, as well as other nonsensical right-wing media grievances like whether they think conservatives are being censored on social media. The RNC forms are also printed on blue paper, similar to official U.S. Census Bureau documents sent to households across the country. A version of the survey was also posted on the RNC’s website and pushed via text message by the Trump campaign.
At the bottom of the survey, under a section deceptively headlined “Certification and Reply,” the mailer asks respondents for donations to the RNC starting at $25. Underneath this solicitation, the document also requests “$15 to help pay for the cost of processing my Census Document.” The Democratic National Committee characterized this request as “a political donation disguised as a government processing fee,” and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights recently sent a letter alleging that this fundraising pitch violates the law to Ronna McDaniel, the current chair of the RNC and the signatory of a letter accompanying the fake census documents.
Reports of people receiving this sort of misleading census mailers from the RNC have appeared in local media in at least 21 states since 2018.
This is exactly the type of story national cable and broadcast networks are positioned to clarify for the public. Instead, coverage has largely been provided by local news, alongside some national print outlets and wire services including the Los Angeles Times, The Associated Press, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. The New York Times has not covered the mailing.
National television news coverage lags behind the most. According to a Media Matters review, MSNBC is the only outlet that has covered the deceptive mailers in 2020, for less than six and a half minutes spread across four segments. CNN and Fox News -- as well as national news broadcasts from ABC, CBS, and NBC -- have not covered this story at all.
Fox News contributor and former Republican congressman Jason Chaffetz condemned the mailer and tweeted out a link of an MSNBC story:
There do not appear to be any stories about the mailing on the Fox News website.
This is not the first time the Republican National Committee has deployed this intentionally misleading tactic in an attempt to raise money. During the 2010 census, under the leadership of Chairman Michael Steele (now an MSNBC political analyst), the RNC sent out a fundraising solicitation also labeled “Congressional District Census” with a “do not destroy” warning. Congress responded by passing the Prevent Deceptive Census Look Alike Mailings Act, which was signed into law by President Barack Obama in April 2010. But some households reported receiving questionnaires from the RNC imitating official census documents again in 2018.
Misinformation regarding the census is a serious threat to the integrity of the count. The struggle over the Trump administration’s failed proposal to include a question about citizenship on the census has contributed significantly to the confusion around this year’s count. The idea of asking census respondents about their citizenship status was designed to undercount constituencies that tend to support Democrats. Recent polls have found that most Americans still believe that the census will include a question about citizenship status, even though its inclusion was blocked by the Supreme Court in July 2019. The Census Bureau has spent millions of dollars on a massive advertising campaign to facilitate participation and combat confusion caused by the Trump administration’s tactic. It has also set up a task force to contain the spread of misinformation online, partnering with Twitter, Facebook, Google, and YouTube.
The RNC’s attempts to squeeze money out of people who are confused by this process only adds to this noise, which threatens to derail this vital decennial count.
For more information on the 2020 census including how to participate, visit 2020census.gov.
Media Matters searched for transcripts in the SnapStream video database for all original programming on cable news networks CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC; ABC’s Good Morning America, World News Tonight, and This Week; CBS’ This Morning, Evening News, and Face the Nation; and NBC’s Today, Nightly News, and Meet the Press from December 3, 2019, to February 27, 2020, that included any of the terms “Republican National Committee,” “RNC,” “GOP,” “donation,” or “fake” or any variations of the terms “fundraise” or “mislead” within close proximity of either of the terms “mailer” or “census.” We excluded teasers for upcoming segments.