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Carlson shows why cable news is ideal terrain for election misinformation

Fox News host Tucker Carlson in 2019. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
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One of the reasons that Tucker Carlson is successful at what he does is because of where he does it.

Carlson hosts a television show on a cable-news network that is deeply invested in his success. The New York Times’s recent exploration of Carlson’s influence and power at Fox News made clear the extent to which the network is focused on supporting his efforts. And given that his efforts (which sit on the “opinion” side of the network’s porous dividing line for its content) regularly roam into the domain of the exaggerated or fictional, that means there’s little impetus for the network to hold him to account.

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Consider the nature of television relative to other formats for a moment. When you read this article, for example, you can return to it, over and over. You can step back and reread the preceding paragraph, mull it over, consider it. You can read this whole article again in a week or a month. What I say can be easily challenged and debated.

With Carlson, that’s much harder. What he says is broadcast live — then disappears into the past. His show re-airs at various times, and clips or transcripts sometimes pop up online. But not always. There’s no way for his audience to easily reconsider what he says. The age of the DVR makes that possible, yes, but not as easy as rereading this paragraph from the beginning. All this makes it much easier to say something untrue or incorrect — then simply press forward. It’s not clear what Fox News’s policy on corrections is (a spokesperson for the network didn’t reply to my question on the subject), but there have been dozens of false claims made by Carlson in recent months that his viewers will never know were false.

Perhaps the most striking revelation to me in the Times report was the paper’s catalogue of who has appeared on Carlson’s show since 2016. The Times tracked nearly 7,000 guest appearances, finding that about 1,000 of them included guests who contradicted the host. Ninety-eight percent of those guests, though, appeared on the show from 2016 to 2019. Since the beginning of 2020, fewer than 1 in 100 Carlson guests contradict the host.

It’s a perfect setup for misinformation: limited ability for viewers to check the record, rare corrections to obvious falsehoods and no guests who will push back on Carlson’s assertions. And so, on Thursday night, Carlson spread some misinformation.

The subject was the 2020 election. Carlson does deserve credit for temporarily kneecapping one of the most obviously false claims that arose in the weeks after the presidential election was settled. His challenge to Donald Trump’s attorney Sidney Powell to present evidence of rampant manipulation of electronic voting machines contributed to Powell’s ouster from Trump’s team, for whatever good that did. But offered the chance to assess the latest baseless claim about the election, the one centered on “ballot trafficking,” Carlson offered no resistance at all.

“We haven’t said a ton about [the election],” Carlson said. “We’ve done a couple of segments on it, but we’ve really tried to be as responsible as we can. You know, we don’t want to make mistakes.”

Ahem. He then proceeded to make a mistake, if one assumes it was not willful.

“On the other hand, we and you and every other American has an absolute right to seek the truth about elections or any other topic and to say what you think about it. Period,” he continued. “So we’re, it turns out, the only news outlet left in America that believes that. It is now effectively a crime to ask questions about what happened during the last presidential election. That’s not an overstatement, by the way.”

To bolster this claim, he showed a news anchor from NBC stating there was “breaking news at this hour from the Department of Homeland Security, that agency warning police departments across the country that false claims about the 2020 presidential election are fueling calls for violence on social media.”

Now, this is not a statement that questioning the election is illegal. It is, instead, a statement that people ginned up about false claims of fraud might engage in acts of violence, a fear that might be more easily dismissed had Jan. 6, 2021, never occurred. What’s more, despite the “at this hour” assertion, this is not a new pronouncement. In as early as August, DHS was warning of a link between false fraud claims and violence. If you have questioned the election since August without being arrested, you have proved Carlson wrong.

“Asking questions about the last election is constitutionally protected,” Carlson said. “It’s a right given to you by God and safeguarded by the U.S. government. Period. But they’re telling you you’re committing a crime and you’re violent if you ask questions.”

Note the awkward injection of religion there. Note, again, that his summary of the DHS warning is wildly misleading.

Carlson then mocked other members of the news media for reporting that the 2020 election results were secure. He showed CNN’s Anderson Cooper commenting a week after the election that “there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud, no evidence of widespread flaws in the mail-in voting process.”

“They have no idea if that’s true because they did no independent investigation whatsoever,” Carlson fumed. “They’re just shills for the Democratic Party!”

Of course, it was true and remains true that there is no evidence of widespread fraud. Cooper’s assertion about a lack of evidence was accurate and demonstrated a central rhetorical concept: It’s up to Carlson to prove fraud, not on Cooper to prove fraud didn’t exist. It’s up to you to give me credible evidence that you were pickpocketed by King Tut, not for me to find evidence that the Boy King didn’t do it.

There was, in fact, no reason on Nov. 10, 2020, to assume that rampant fraud had occurred and there is no reason to assume now that it did. Though this is not what Carlson then proceeded to present to his audience.

Before we get to his claims, some context is useful. Since Trump began asserting that the election would be tainted by fraud, his allies have worked hard to demonstrate that he was right. Over time, after the election had been conducted and finalized, several lines of argument were developed. One held that hundreds of thousands of votes had been cast illegally as part of a national scheme to directly steal the election for Joe Biden. Another asserted that changes to the laws that expanded access to polling violated state constitutions. Another posited that efforts to increase turnout amounted to unacceptable “rigging” by the elites; specifically, via an indirect route, Meta chief executive Mark Zuckerberg. These intertwine: Expanding access by making it easier to vote by mail or with drop boxes is simply assumed to have made fraud more rampant though no evidence of rampant fraud exists.

It’s hand-waving, mostly because those for whom the arguments are intended are already convinced of the conclusion. They just want to be able to point to the path they claim to have taken to get there.

On Thursday night, Carlson hosted Catherine Engelbrecht of True the Vote. Engelbrecht has been popping up a lot recently, thanks to her organization’s analysis of the 2020 election being at the center of Dinesh D’Souza’s new film, “2000 Mules.” Here’s how she described that work to Carlson:

“We invested in a tremendous amount — 10 trillion cellphone pings, geospatial data — that allowed us to monitor the device movements around drop boxes, to develop patterns of life to determine whether unique devices were going repeatedly to drop boxes. Over time, that became a pattern that included not just drop boxes, but also far-left organizations. And we noticed a pattern consistent with the nexus between both the organizations and the drop boxes.”

In essence, the group got access (apparently from a commercial vendor) to cellphone location data in the five states flipped by Biden in 2020. They defined areas around ballot drop boxes and tracked how often individual devices entered those defined areas.

Engelbrecht frames the analysis as having only belatedly expanded to loop in “far-left organizations.” When she was testifying before a legislative committee in Wisconsin, she said they started from the assumption that such organizations would be involved.

“We formed a working hypothesis based on, in part, informant testimonies from across the country,” she said in March, “and it went something like this: If nonprofit groups … were going to exploit weaknesses in our election process, then the exploitation would likely involve mail ballots, which are notoriously insecure and the newly introduced and highly unregulated absentee ballot drop boxes.”

The difference is subtle but important, moving from “look what we discovered” to “here’s what we assumed.”

Regardless, this analysis of cellphone data is, in fact, a clever approach to the question. But it is also, as I’ve explained and as the Associated Press has explained, a deeply flawed one. Cellphone geolocation simply isn’t that precise, and there does not appear to have been an effort to verify that the identified devices belonged to people who were actually ferrying ballots around. It’s like finding boot prints near an open door and suggesting someone wearing boots committed burglary. Maybe the boot prints were just someone walking by! And, of course, maybe there was no burglary at all.

I’m a broken record here, but in each of the five states, there were circumstances under which someone could submit multiple ballots at once. In Wisconsin, there was no prohibition against collecting ballots and submitting them, something turnout organizations do because it allows them to ensure people actually voted. (It’s the difference between trusting your kid to not lose his mittens and pinning them to his sleeves.) In Pennsylvania, collecting ballots was legal. In the other states, people could designate others to submit ballots on their behalf.

What’s interesting about the Carlson-Engelbrecht discussion is how quickly it moved from this discussion of collected ballots — something Engelbrecht has in the past admitted did not imply the ballots themselves were invalid.

“I want to make very clear that we’re not suggesting that the ballots that were cast were illegal ballots,” she said during testimony before a Wisconsin legislative committee. “What we’re saying is that the process was abused.”

This is what she said to Carlson, too: “There was wanton abuse in this cycle.” Well, where? The conversation quickly blended her work with the claims about the constitutionality of expanding voting access and of the funding that a third-party group provided to states to improve ballot access. In essence, Engelbrecht’s group’s data simply offered a facade of concrete evidence for its vague allegations.

Even if the cellphone data perfectly captured thousands of people submitting ballots — the wobbly “if” on which her group’s credibility rests — there’s still no evidence the votes themselves shouldn’t have counted. It’s just the same vague winking about how maybe fraud occurred and that wasn’t okay. And then that is blanketed with a lot of hand-wringing about the expansion of voting access.

As when Carlson seemingly sincerely wondered: “Why would you have a drop box? Just go to the polls if you want to vote!” Students of history will recall that there was a pandemic underway at the time of the 2020 election that prompted states to try to reduce the need for in-person interactions.

Eventually, Engelbrecht said the thing Carlson’s viewers had been waiting to hear.

“Based upon our data, 2020 is beyond question,” she said. “That outcome would have been different.”

If what? If people had returned their own ballots? If we simply threw those ballots out? Even in Pennsylvania, where collecting them was legal? Remember, too, that the group’s data alone necessarily can’t tell us anything about how many ballots might have been deposited, if any. Again, it’s hand-waving. And Carlson, of course, raised no issue with it at all.

“It’s always the same playbook,” he said, wrapping up the interview. “They scream at you so aggressively that you sort of back down, ‘Okay!’ And then you realize they’re screaming at you because you’re on the right track.”

Or because you’re repeatedly misinforming your audience in precisely the manner that law enforcement worries will inspire backlash. But I don’t have the final say here. Feel free to go back and read my argument again, clicking the various links I added with more information. Take your time with it.

This medium invites scrutiny, to both our and your benefit.