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A political litmus test for Republicans: Fail it, lose your TV slot

Time for a rapid test for the voter fraud delusion

The control room at the Associated Press Television Network in Washington on Election Day in 2016. News networks ought to stop letting allies of President Trump make false claims about this year's election. (Jon Elswick/AP)
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Almost a month has passed since Joe Biden won the election, and the Republican Party still refuses to acknowledge him as president-elect. With hardly any exceptions, Republicans in Congress support President Trump’s lie that imaginary voter fraud stole the election from him.

Unfortunately, there is no vaccine for this delusion. But journalists in the news business do have the power to stop the spread of this dangerous disinformation by quarantining this conspiracy theory to where it belongs — Fox News, Newsmax and One America News — rather than allowing it to infect viewers of real news outlets.

It starts with rapid testing. And unlike the coronavirus rapid tests, this test is 100 percent reliable.

Whenever Republicans appear on a news show, the first question to them must be: “Do you acknowledge that Biden won the election and that he is president-elect?” If the Republican politician doesn’t say yes, they’ve failed the test and are at risk of spreading disinformation. The host of the show has an obligation to viewers to stop the interview there and say goodbye.

If an interview subject is willing to lie about a fact so plainly obvious and integral to American democracy — “the election is real and it happened” — we have to assume they’re willing to lie about anything. Real news outlets don’t interview flat-earthers or Sandy Hook truthers like Alex Jones for this very reason: Platforming conspiracy theorists is dangerous and offering them airtime validates their beliefs. Why aren’t TV news networks applying the same approach to the Republican Party’s election truthers?

Why Trump is flirting with abandoning Fox News for One America

Recently two Republican senators were invited on separate Sunday morning news shows and denied that Biden won the election: Kevin Cramer (N.D.), on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Nov. 22, and Roy Blunt (Mo.), on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Nov. 29. In both instances, they were asked point-blank if they acknowledge that Biden is the president-elect. In both instances, they refused to say yes — Blunt produced the reality-denying evasion “the president-elect will be the president-elect when the electors vote for him,” and when Cramer was asked if he agrees that the election is over, he said “No, I do not.” (He did add, in a reluctant nod to the real world, that “I think it’s very likely,” but the damage was already done.)

Yet the interviews were allowed to continue, and both Republicans used those platforms to disseminate false information about the election on the air: Blunt burbled on about “ballots that shouldn’t have been cast” and how “some things that were done that shouldn’t have been done,” involving “some element of voter fraud,” spouted a regurgitation of Trump/One America News nonsense on “checking the signatures” and capped it by falsely blaming Democrats for withholding coronavirus relief money. On NBC, Cramer spun even dumber conspiracy theories — that the Obama administration was “spying” on the Trump campaign, and that the Mueller investigation found “no evidence” of anything. (Host Chuck Todd barely pushed back an inch on any of it.)

Administering the bad-faith test would have stopped these conspiracy theorists from furthering Trump’s attack on democracy on mainstream outlets — and it also would have the effect of disincentivizing other Republicans from spreading that same disinformation. Conspiracy theorists only want oxygen, and if cable producers show them they’ll cut off their supply unless they act in good faith, they might change their behavior. You haven’t seen real desperation until you’ve seen a senator without access to a Sunday show.

How the right became addicted to conspiracies

This is obviously a radical approach to suggest to TV journalists, but throughout the four years of Trump’s presidency, the industry has been slow to adapt to an era defined by unadulterated bad faith. News anchors filled their broadcasts with Trump’s fantastical 2018 midterm panic over the migrant “caravan” that never arrived, listened with concerned faces as Republicans faked outrage over Sarah Sanders being asked to leave a restaurant, and repeatedly invited back conspiracy theorists like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) onto Sunday shows to lie about the “phony Steele dossier,” “FISA abuse” and “no quid pro quo” — phrases that should never have been allowed to escape from the Fox bubble.

Administering this bad-faith test may be awkward and unpleasant, but it’s the only way to safely proceed with live interviews with Republicans who may be carrying a dangerous conspiracy theory that spreads on air.

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