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Pay attention to the propaganda, and other ways to cover an attempted coup in America

Posted January 3, 2021 11:36 p.m. EST

— A version of this article first appeared in the "Reliable Sources" newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.

Sunday showed how. With President Trump's anti-democratic conduct front and center, reporters and anchors used blunt language; challenged complicit politicians; and relied on primary source material, including Trump's own words from his damning call with Georgia election officials. CNN anchor Ana Cabrera called it a "Nixonian" recording of Trump sounding "like a mob boss." Carl Bernstein said it was evidence that Trump is trying to "instigate a coup." Dan Balz, writing for the front page of Monday's Washington Post, said "there are but 16 days left in President Trump's term, but there is no doubt that he will use all of his remaining time in office to inflict as much damage as he can on democracy — with members of a now-divided Republican Party acting as enablers."

The news coverage has to keep reiterating what is true -- that Joe Biden won the election. Trump's legal gambits have been laughed out of court. His voter fraud lies have been debunked. And he can't even keep his own story straight.

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The famous line from "Jaws" came to my mind on Sunday afternoon as I read all the reactions to WaPo's jaw-dropping scoop. Amy Gardner, a national political reporter for the Post, was the first to obtain the audio of Trump's hour-long call with Brad Raffensperger. Other news outlets ingested their own copies of the audio later in the afternoon. Everyone who's saying you should listen to the entire call is right -- listen, or read the transcript, right here.

"The big lie"

Timothy Snyder, author of "On Tyranny," was my "A block" guest on Sunday. He said Trump is "moving from the territory of the medium-sized lie into the big lie," because a "big lie" like "I won the election" requires believers to reject so much evidence and commit to a vast conspiratorial story. "And it's a big lie because if you believe it," he said, "it demands that you take radical action. So this is one way that we've really moved forward towards authoritarianism and away from democracy. And it's coming. It's coming to a peak right now."

>> Snyder also said that what's missing in the coverage "is 'local reality,' local news. If local news were stronger, we'd all have a stronger sense about how the elections actually happened," including the security of the voting systems...

For the record

-- NYT's Nick Kristof tweeted about WaPo getting the tape first: "The newspaper war between the Post and The Times has been the best kind, trying to provide truth and accountability and push back the tides of authoritarianism..." (Twitter)

-- David Gura harkened back to the "Access Hollywood" tape: "It was a presidency bookended by audio recordings obtained by The Washington Post." (Twitter)

-- Reuters reporter Brad Heath: "The president's call with Georgia election officials is hard to listen to. We spend billions of dollars to make the president the best-informed person on Earth, but the information he's parroting about the election is total bull..." (Twitter)

-- What news events did the audio overshadow? Well, Nancy Pelosi's re-election as House speaker, for one... (CNN)

Pay attention to the propaganda

Oliver Darcy writes: "Time and time again I find myself reading stories and watching news reports that leave out crucial info about Trump's efforts to subvert the election: That he has propaganda networks operating on his behalf. He has a handful of cable channels (Fox, OAN, Newsmax), websites (Gateway Pundit, Daily Wire, Breitbart), and talk radio hosts (Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, etc.) who prop up his conspiracy theories and share 'em with millions. Failing to mention that, and suggesting it is only Trump and his Republican allies lying to Americans, does a huge disservice to readers. Frankly, this propaganda machine is more powerful than the Republican lawmakers who are doing his bidding."

Darcy adds: "As Stelter said on Sunday's show, senators like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley are merely reflecting the views of their voters. It's the broadcasters who have the power, who are speaking straight to GOP voters, and pushing the nation down this perilous path. Listen to what Mark Levin told Fox viewers on Sunday night: 'Any Republican who doesn't stand up' on Wednesday will be 'shredding the Constitution' right along with the Democrats. Levin targeted GOP senators: 'Do you understand me Mitch McConnell? John Thune? John Cornyn?' This is why it's so crucial that mainstream political coverage pays attention to the propaganda..."

The source of Trump's conspiracy theories

Donie O'Sullivan writes: "On the call with Raffensperger, Trump sounded so much like the diehard believers of conspiracy theories I have interviewed. (Those believers include some of Trump's loyal supporters.) Raffensperger and his colleagues did some real-time fact-checking of Trump on the call but the president did what any conspiracy theorist does -- as soon as one of his beliefs was shown to be false, he quickly moved on to another anecdote. That's what they do..."

>> NBC's Ben Collins tweeted: "Almost everything" Trump said on the call "are copy-pasted rumors that went wild on Facebook, said by 8kun administrator Ron Watkins on OAN, or from 4chan/TheDonald.win rumors that were aggregated on the Gateway Pundit. The numbers are all made up. It's all lies."

>> Collins added: "The QAnon social media pipeline has totally engulfed far-right social media and churns out one new fictitious way for Trump to remain president every day. It's all Donald Trump ingests, and he thinks he can remain president because of it."

"Fantasy world"

"The single most worrisome political fact in America right now is that a significant portion of the Republican Party lives in a fantasy world, a place where facts and truth don't hold sway, where 'owning the libs' is an end in itself, and where seceding from reality is a symbol of tribal loyalty, rather than a sign of mental illness," longtime GOP administration official Peter Wehner wrote for The Atlantic the other day. "This is leading the party, and America itself, to places we've never been before, including the spectacle of a defeated president and his supporters engaging in a sustained effort to steal an election."

Which is why the challenge for journalists is so significant right now. "A cult is attempting a coup in America" -- is that the one-line summary of what's going on? As Ron Brownstein remarked over the weekend, "we do not have a language in the American political tradition to describe what is happening inside the GOP." Trump's allies say they're trying to save democracy while undermining democracy. They shout "Stop the Steal" while starting the steal. And so on and so on...

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