When the people behind the sham “audit” in Arizona released their report on Friday, siding with Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election but still attempting to cast doubt on the democratic process that birthed it, too many sources in the media were quick to celebrate what they saw as a victory. In their adulation and with their framing that the results were confirmation of what we’ve known for some time now, mainstream media both legitimized a process that continues to put our electoral system at risk and ignored the threats the report actually represented.
Before the report’s release, it would not have been unreasonable to expect the results would attempt to further sow distrust in the democratic process by denying Biden’s victory. After all, the entire process was financed by supporters of an ex-president who continues to claim he won and run by a company whose CEO has deep ties to conspiracy theorists who claim the election was stolen.
Yet, as was pointed out by several sources online, when the report stated what legitimate sources had already shown, many mainstream outlets broke the news with headlines that perpetuated the narrative that the results were grounded in a legitimate process. They used euphemisms to describe the findings of a sham process intended to throw out thousands of legally cast votes and undermine the electoral system, and they cast the results as a verification of official counts.
To be fair, many of the resulting articles did at the very least point out that those involved were financed by right-wing sources and used a highly flawed methodology. However, many outlets were too transfixed on printing another loss for former President Donald Trump to properly frame the report as what it truly was — the findings of a fraudulent process. Furthermore, as Greg Sargent of The Washington Post pointed out, many outlets failed to recognize that the report still tried to cast doubt on the system.
There’s a danger in downplaying this part of the story. Many headlines about this audit say in one way or another that it “confirmed” Biden won. But we don’t need this audit to confirm that, and it isn’t actually confirming that voters should have confidence in that outcome.
Treating this audit as if it somehow “confirmed" this suggests it was about empirical verification of the results, and as such, risks normalizing such practices. But it wasn’t about that, and it absolutely cannot be normalized. It has always been about undercutting the legitimacy of a Democratic electoral victory, and about justifying escalated anti-democratic tactics in response.
Here are a few examples of misguided headlines and coverage.
- The Washington Post: “Arizona ballot review commissioned by Republicans reaffirms Biden’s victory.” The opening line framed the report as legitimate proof, saying the “Republican-commissioned review of nearly 2.1 million ballots cast last year in Arizona confirmed the accuracy of the official results and President Biden’s win in Maricopa County, according to a final report released Friday.” The article did not explicitly discuss criticism of the sham audit until 15 paragraphs in.
- Reuters: “'Truth is truth': Trump dealt blow as Republican-led Arizona audit reaffirms Biden win.” Reuters treated the news initially as confirming Biden’s win, saying, “Donald Trump lost the 2020 presidential election to Joe Biden in Arizona's most populous county, a review of results by his allies in the Republican Party has reaffirmed,” and followed by calling it “widely panned." The first mention of the review’s intent to undermine legitimate votes came in the third paragraph.
- The Hill: “Arizona draft audit report shows Biden lead widened by 360 votes.” The article framed the report’s findings as more legitimate than the previously verified count, saying the “Republican-led audit of the 2020 election in Arizona’s largest county found that President Biden actually won by a larger margin than the county’s official results show.”
- The Wall Street Journal: “Arizona GOP’s Election Audit Confirms Biden Win in State.” Although noting from the outset that Cyber Ninjas, the company conducting the sham audit, had “no federal accreditation to audit elections,” the article did not mention the audit in the context of a larger fraudulent effort to decertify the results until 18 paragraphs in.
- CNN: “Final report from partisan Arizona review confirms Biden defeated Trump in Maricopa County last November.” Although CNN’s piece quickly noted the fraudulent nature of the report, it still initially framed the story around how “the results of reviewers' hand recount are nearly identical to the county's tally.”
- MSNBC: Introducing news of the report on her show, MSNBC Reports, Chris Jansing said, “More proof this morning that the big lie is just that. And the proof is actually being provided courtesy of Donald Trump's biggest supporters. NBC News has obtained a draft report on the audit in Maricopa County, Arizona, which Trump said would prove he won. Well, not only does it not show he won, but Joe Biden actually gained more votes in that audit.”
- Newsweek: “Arizona Audit Results Reveal Donald Trump Lost to Joe Biden by Even Bigger Margin.” The majority of this article treated the sham “audit” as entirely legitimate, making no mention of any criticism and saying that “the draft report shows there was less than a 1,000-vote difference between the county's certified ballot count and the hand count.” Toward the end of the piece, Newsweek called the audit “controversial” and vaguely referred to statements from “critics” questioning “its independence” and calling it a “fraudit.”
- NPR recognized its initial flaw, changing its original headline of “The Controversial Election Review In Arizona Confirms Biden's Win” to “The Discredited GOP Election Review In Arizona's Largest County Also Finds Biden Won.”
- One particularly bad take happened on CNN, where there was an attempt to assert that this foray into subverting democracy could be painted as a positive. On the September 24 edition of CNN’s New Day With John Berman and Brianna Keilar, CNN legal analyst and Republican election lawyer Ben Ginsberg said that there was a “silver lining in this audit and in what the other states are doing,” as when the “sham audits” find “the results are accurate,” that is a way to “get Trump people to stop believing the big lie.” He concluded states should “give Trump his chance to prove it” since he has “swung and missed every time so far.” Co-host John Berman did push back against Ginsberg on this framing. When asked about Ginsberg’s comments later on the show, CNN correspondent Kasie Hunt agreed with him in part, saying, “There are people being swayed by these audits that, yes, we all acknowledge are unnecessary, but at the same time potentially do have some real long-term impact." Ginsberg also appeared later in the day on CNN’s At This Hour With Kate Bolduan, repeating the same narrative. Host Kate Bolduan also provided pushback to Garrison.