The Associated Press turned a far-right county clerk’s conspiracy theories into a bipartisan “feud”

Mainstream media outlets’ desire for both-sides narratives just ends up deflecting from how unhinged — and dangerous — the right’s election claims have become

The Associated Press completely bungled a story on August 12, involving an investigation by Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold that reportedly found a county clerk had illegally exposed voting systems to “a serious breach” by far-right conspiracy theorists.

The AP’s article used the term “feud” to describe the situation in not only the headline, but also in the first and ninth paragraphs, as well as using other terms such as “dispute” to make this seem like a two-sided political affair between the Democratic state official and a Republican clerk, rather than an actual breach of election security coming from the right-wing fringe.

Because of the AP’s role as a wire service, the “feud” framing of the story was further spread by such outlets as NBC News, The Detroit News, and a variety of local network TV stations across the country.

What makes this even worse, however, is that the rest of the article contained plenty of information about how Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters is a conspiracy theorist peddling a host of false claims to undermine the 2020 election results. But those facts were buried deeper in the piece, beneath the absurd “feud” framing of a potentially criminal matter.

The bottom line: In pursuit of a both-sides approach to political stories that balances some mythical ideal of partisan evenhandedness, mainstream media outlets risk desensitizing themselves — and their audience — to just how unhinged and dangerous all this stuff is.

State investigators say Peters enabled a “security breach” of voting machines, which was then spread by the QAnon conspiracy theory movement

Colorado Public Radio reported the secretary of state’s allegations that Peters allowed an unauthorized person into a secure software update of the county’s voting systems. In order to get this person inside for the update process, the county clerk’s office would have had to lie about them being an employee and having passed the necessary background check. The update was carried out by an employee of Dominion Voting Systems, a company that has become the target of far-right conspiracy theories about the 2020 election.

Videos and photos from the software update were then shared online by QAnon influencer Ron Watkins, who has led the far-right conspiracy theory movement in branching out into election conspiracy theories. Making the situation worse, the passwords for the voting system software were also posted online.

Moreover, Griswold’s investigators claim that Peters had instructed her staff to turn off the video surveillance equipment that is supposed to monitor the voting machines, starting from about a week before the update in May, and that it was only recently turned back on — leaving the machines vulnerable to tampering.

“To be very clear, Mesa County Clerk and Recorder [Peters] allowed a security breach and by all evidence at this point, assisted it,” Griswold announced at a press conference on Thursday.

All told, the state is now decertifying Mesa County’s voting systems, and the county will have to replace them or switch to hand-counting ballots in elections this November.

In the meantime, Colorado Public Radio reports: “Mesa County District Attorney Dan Rubinstein has assigned an investigator to look into the security breach, which could potentially lead to criminal charges.”

How the AP buried the county clerk’s conspiracy theories, in order to present the “feud”

The third paragraph of the AP story related early on: “Peters slammed the investigation of her office, claiming that Griswold is attempting a takeover of Mesa County’s elections in one of Colorado’s last Republican strongholds.”

But it wasn’t until the 19th paragraph, far down in the piece, that this claim was disproven: “Griswold said the majority of Colorado’s election clerks are Republicans which shows ‘how untrue that statement is.’” (Indeed, there are also a few larger Republican-voting counties in the state than Mesa.)

The AP also waited until the 12th paragraph to tell readers that Peters was in South Dakota attending MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell’s “cyber symposium,” which was intended to reveal the proof that would reinstate former President Donald Trump into office this month. Addressing Lindell’s far-out claims of vote manipulation, the AP then explained that “a range of election officials across the country including Trump’s former attorney general, William Barr, have confirmed did not take place.”

The 15th paragraph of the AP article related Peters’ claim during the symposium that Griswold’s office “raided” the county clerk’s office, and that state officials and Dominion employees would not let staff observe what was going on. “After several hours, they allowed my chief deputy to come in and they go ‘Oh, Look at this. Look! Look! See we found this, this, this!’” Peters is quoted. “I don’t know what they did, but I can tell you I don’t trust them.”

It was only later, all the way down in the 22nd paragraph, that the AP told readers that the county’s district attorney also had his own election investigator at the clerk’s office, along with the secretary of state’s team. (Plus: While the article noted repeatedly that Mesa County is a heavily Republican area, it would have also been a good idea for them to note that Rubinstein is also a Republican, and his staff is now investigating Peters’ office.)

Video file

Citation From OAN's August 10, 2021, coverage of Mike Lindell's Cyber Symposium

And only in the next paragraph, nearly at the end of the piece, did the AP give readers an idea of Peters’ overall job performance at actually running elections: “In February of 2020, Griswold’s office announced a Mesa County elections investigation after nearly 600 ballots were forgotten in a drop-box outside Peters’ office front door for months following the 2019 general election, a year after Peters was elected.”

That’s right: After the past year of conspiracy theories about how voting machines were insecure and drop boxes were unreliable, it turns out that some of the loudest people advancing those claims have made them into self-fulfilling prophecies.