Listen to President Trump long enough, and, despite his penchant for falsehood, you’ll eventually hear some unvarnished truth.
His words were stark: “Now, they need that money in order to have the Post Office work, so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots.” He added that holding back funding means “they can’t have universal mail-in voting, they just can’t have it.”
In other words, he doesn’t want American citizens, fearful of exposure to the coronavirus, to have every opportunity to vote in November.
It’s not his first effort to cripple the Postal Service, one of the most essential — and popular — institutions in America. His statements Thursday came after he installed a Republican megadonor, Louis DeJoy, as the new postmaster general. In turn, DeJoy has unseated dozens of veteran postal officials. He and his minions have banned overtime and told carriers to leave mail behind at distribution centers, letting it pile up for days. Sorting machines that speed mail processing have been removed.
“Things are already going wrong,” Philip F. Rubio, an expert on the Postal Service and history professor at North Carolina A&T State University (and a former letter carrier himself), told Politico. There are “widespread mail slowdowns of all kinds of mail — first-class, marketing mail, parcels. Even the Veterans’ Administration has complained that veterans are not getting their medications on time.”
The news media — although numbed to Trump’s outrageous statements after years of standing in the path of his fire hose of distraction — managed a robust reaction to Thursday’s disgraceful remarks.
Network news shows reported it high in their broadcasts. The Washington Post and the New York Times put the story above the fold on their print front pages and prominently on their home pages. (The Wall Street Journal did not mention it on Friday’s print front page.) The Philadelphia Inquirer nailed it, reporting that Pennsylvania mail ballots may not be delivered on time and that state officials foresee an “overwhelming” risk to voters. Vice’s Motherboard dived into the sorting-machine debacle.
On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” former congressional spokesman Kurt Bardella called out Trump’s intentions: “The only reason why there would be any resistance to funding the Postal Service is to try and subvert this election.” And in The Post, Paul Waldman justifiably called it a national emergency.
But what about next week and next month?
Can something as dull-sounding as the workings of the Post Office compete with former Trump attorney Michael Cohen’s new tell-all book, whose foreword includes lines like: “From golden showers in a sex club in Vegas, to tax fraud, to deals with corrupt officials from the former Soviet Union, to catch and kill conspiracies to silence Trump’s clandestine lovers, I wasn’t just a witness to the president’s rise — I was an active and eager participant.”
Can it break into the endless political takes on Kamala D. Harris as Joe Biden’s running mate, or the next political horse-race story that’s around the corner?
But if journalists don’t keep the pressure on Postal Service problems, they will be abdicating their duty.
There’s very little that matters more than the Nov. 3 vote. Anything that threatens the integrity of the vote needs to be treated as one of the biggest stories out there — even if it’s not the sexiest.
Dan Gillmor, co-founder of the News Co/Lab at Arizona State University’s journalism school, told me he sees a need for news organizations to put aside their competitive urges.
“Some stories demand collaboration, and this one is a plain example. The nation’s newsrooms — working together and, crucially, with the help of the public in communities around the nation — could find out and explain what is going on, at the macro and micro level,” he said.
ProPublica’s Electionland project, which focused on postal problems months ago and collaborates with more than 50 newsrooms, shows how it can be done. It investigates issues related to voter registration, changes to voting amid the pandemic, cybersecurity, voter education and misinformation.
But all news organizations need to turn up the heat.
Despite the president’s statements about Democrats, this shouldn’t be a partisan issue, as journalist Elizabeth Spiers noted: “Supporting the continued existence of the USPS, which is guaranteed in the Constitution, should be the most straightforward non-political bipartisan effort in existence. Everyone uses it and needs it, and the irony is older rural Trump supporters need it *more*.”
There’s very little reason to buy Trump’s attacks on mail-in voting as prone to rampant fraud, as multiple studies repeatedly have shown. What’s more, security concerns can be readily addressed, as the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice detailed in a report aptly titled “The False Narrative of Vote-by-Mail Fraud.”
Granted, it’s tough for journalists to tell the story of a necessity that exists now but is being weakened by larger forces. You find yourself trying to describe a specter, as I’ve found in recent weeks, as I’ve talked about the devastating effects of the decline of local news.
Coverage of climate change faces the same challenge: How do journalists communicate a fast-arriving emergency when many citizens aren’t fully experiencing its ravages yet?
Now, with the Postal Service threats, there’s a new wrinkle: How do you deal with a scandal when the president himself has no shame about admitting to it?
Yes, it’s challenging. But let’s crank up the volume and do our jobs. Democracy itself depends on it.
Columnist Margaret Sullivan started out in a vibrant local-newspaper industry. Now it’s vanishing, leaving our very democracy in peril.
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan