In carrying out its mission to promote themes dear to the Democratic Party establishment, The New York Times has produced a slick video on voting technology. The document counters US President Donald Trump’s claim that the 2020 election will be rigged. The video’s title sums up its case and sets the tone: “This U.S. Election Could Be the Most Secure Yet.”
Some viewers may notice that the verb “could” contains some serious ambiguity. In contrast with “will,” “could” expresses deep uncertainty. This should tip off viewers that they may be in for a rhetorical ride as they sift through the strong innuendo and shaky evidence of the nearly 14-minute video.
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It doesn’t take long to realize that the entire thesis is built on two sweeping generalizations with nothing to back them up. The first is the assertion in the title that the US presidential election will be secure. It wants us to feel convinced a serious problem has been solved. The second is the thesis that can be found in so many Times articles that the only problem with US democracy is Russian interference.
Early in the video, we meet the first figure of authority, David Sanger. His title appears on the right side of the screen: The New York Times national security correspondent. He authoritatively announces the gist of the problem: “The Russians managed to get us paranoid about the security of our own election systems.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
In the world of journalism, a productive mental state that incites editors and journalists at The New York Times to produce an unending series of stories that blame Russia for every political problem in the United States.
The self-confessed paranoiac Sanger is immediately followed by David Becker, the executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research (CEIR). He informs viewers that all is well in the asylum thanks to this reassuring message: “I think it is safe to say that this is the most secure election we’ve ever held in the United States.” In case the viewer isn’t sure whether this unknown personality can be trusted, the video editor provides a caption in the middle of the screen with an arrow pointing to Becker’s head. It says, “Expert.” The curious will have to Google CEIR to learn that Becker’s institute was funded by Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook. Google will also lead them to stories that tell the true story about voting machine vulnerabilities, such as this one.
Once we are reassured by what the “expert” thinks, the voiceover reminds us that vigilance is still required because the Russians are still there. “In 2015, Russians infiltrated our voting in every single state,” the female voice tells us against a background listing the states, whose names, one by one, flip from black to red (the color everyone associates with Soviet Russia). Then comes a curiously honest disclaimer: “Now, there’s no evidence Russians altered votes but… .” The “but” is followed by Sanger offering the analogy of a cat burglar that “got into your house and cased the joint but didn’t take anything.” Russia is a cat burglar.
All of the above occurs in the first minute of the video with 13 more to come. It leads to Sanger’s ominous rhetorical question, “Could the Russians actually affect the vote?” The cat burglar will of course return. Suitably alarmed, the viewer is now prepared to hear the heroic story that will follow of a brave woman in Texas who is about to save the nation from the Russian threat.
Apart from the sophisticated video editing worthy of Madison Avenue, the heavy-handed messaging of this video can best be compared to… Soviet propaganda. (What else, since it’s all about Russia?) The opening sequence alone merits careful rhetorical analysis. It plays on questions asking with no answers, suppositions with no evidence and speculation that things not only could have gone awry in the past but might go awry in the future, while neglecting the real history of US elections manipulated not by Russians, but by Americans.
The voiceover mentions dire interference by the Russians in 2015, suggesting that it can explain Trump’s election in November 2016. Sanger had previously called this “one of the most successful intelligence operations in modern history.” But the voiceover also admits that this hadn’t changed any votes. How could one of the most successful operations in history have produced no result? No matter. The point was simply to justify the alarming question: “Could the Russians actually affect the vote?” Though no answer is given, we assume that it should be yes.
The rest of the video turns around the premise that voting machines may be unreliable, which means that Russians (and only Russians) could hack them. The idea that Republicans, Democrats or mafiosi might hack them is never raised.
The video then goes on to develop the moral tale of a brave woman in Texas who fought for new technology with a “voter-verified paper trail.” She tells us about “a rough world out there in the elections voting system business” without noticing that the problem may have something to do with mixing business and election procedures. We learn about how the established actors, sharing a monopoly on technology designed to exclude a paper trail, successfully stifled competitive innovation, until the dramatic moment when the forces of good succeeded in imposing a better technology now in use in some places (but not everywhere).
At this point, the voiceover reminds us of an essential truth proving that all’s well that ends well: “It took Russia’s hacking to improve our voting technology.”
Over the past two decades, the investigative journalist Greg Palast has done more focused work than anyone in the public eye to expose the scandal of election manipulation in the US. Unlike The New York Times, he didn’t wait for Russian manipulation of the 2016 presidential election to get to work.
In December 2003, Palast clearly identified the danger that was emerging. It stemmed from President George W. Bush’s 2002 reform — the Help America Vote Act that imposed voting machines as the national norm for elections. Bush, a Republican, hoped for something more manageable than Florida’s controversial hanging chads as the means for turning future elections in his party’s favor. Democrats voted for the bill. Since then, in election after election, including Democratic primaries, Palast and others (including Robert F. Kennedy Jr.), have provided documented evidence of both parties finding ways of exploiting the technologies for their particular needs.
Back in 2003, Palast correctly predicted that the machines would be conducive to rigging and highlighted the critical factor: “The administration has put to death any plan that would allow you to have some type of backup paper ballot or receipt.” Seventeen years later, The New York Times — always abreast of the latest news fit to print — attributes this insight to an election clerk in Austin, Texas, who, after 18 years of using the paperless machines, came to the conclusion that what was missing was “a paper trail.”
David Sanger’s claim that “the Russians managed to get us paranoid” is only half-true. The evidence clearly shows that The New York Times is paranoid. Even in yesterday’s edition, The Times revived a debunked theory about Russian interference with US diplomacy across the globe. For the past four years, The NYT has demonstrated its unbending fixation on blaming Russia for every problem in the US, starting with the unanticipated election of Donald Trump in 2016.
What is untrue is the idea that the Russians are responsible for The Times’ paranoia. It’s more likely that The Times’ paranoia was a preexisting condition. But a third hypothesis may be closer to the truth. It was the Democratic Party seeking an excuse for Hillary Clinton’s loss to Trump that encouraged The NYT to go paranoid.
Or maybe it isn’t about paranoia at all, but cynicism. In today’s hyperreal news cycles, even the Gray Lady needs sensationalism and false drama to sell their reporting. The mere presence of Trump created a permanent background of sensationalism. For The Times, in its service to the Democratic establishment, the idea of grafting evil Russia onto the Trump pantomime could only be a godsend.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.