Irresponsible Hype from Molly Ball and Time Magazine

Then-President Donald Trump speaks about early results from the presidential election in the East Room of the White House, November 4, 2020. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
Her account of the election being rigged against Trump by an invisible cabal of activists is needlessly provocative and unsupported.

Writing a column in Time magazine entitled, “The Secret History of the Shadow Campaign That Saved the 2020 Election,” Molly Ball would like to convince you that, if you’re worried about a conspiracy run by a wealthy, invisible cabal to rig the election against Donald Trump, you’re right. But the facts in her own story don’t entirely support her own breathless rhetoric. Are she and her editors at Time withholding more evidence? Letting overeager sources hang themselves in their headlong rush to burnish their reputations and fundraising lists? Or just being completely reckless and irresponsible in feeding the conspiracy-theory machine for clicks? Ball’s article raises some legitimate concerns, but it is written in a needlessly provocative style.

If “secret history” and “shadow campaign” aren’t vaguely sinister-sounding enough for you, consider how Ball frames her story:

“It was all very, very strange,” Trump said on Dec. 2. “Within days after the election, we witnessed an orchestrated effort to anoint the winner, even while many key states were still being counted.” In a way, Trump was right. There was a conspiracy unfolding behind the scenes, one that both curtailed the protests and coordinated the resistance from CEOs.

This is the inside story of the conspiracy to save the 2020 election, based on access to the group’s inner workings, never-before-seen documents and interviews with dozens of those involved from across the political spectrum. . . . The participants want the secret history of the 2020 election told, even though it sounds like a paranoid fever dream — a well-funded cabal of powerful people, ranging across industries and ideologies, working together behind the scenes to influence perceptions, change rules and laws, steer media coverage and control the flow of information.

Ball argues that this octopus-like hidden power was virtuous, but in doing so, only emphasizes its power — exactly the sort of tale of coordinated power that Sheldon Whitehouse likes to claim exists on the right:

The handshake between business and labor was just one component of a vast, cross-partisan campaign to protect the election — an extraordinary shadow effort dedicated not to winning the vote but to ensuring it would be free and fair, credible and uncorrupted.

Their work touched every aspect of the election. They got states to change voting systems and laws and helped secure hundreds of millions in public and private funding. They fended off voter-suppression lawsuits, recruited armies of poll workers and got millions of people to vote by mail for the first time. They successfully pressured social media companies to take a harder line against disinformation and used data-driven strategies to fight viral smears. They executed national public-awareness campaigns. . . . After Election Day, they monitored every pressure point to ensure that Trump could not overturn the result. They were not rigging the election; they were fortifying it.

There is a lot going on here. In Ball’s framing of the story, a single conspiratorial cabal that started with “the galactic center for a constellation of operatives across the left” united progressive activists, Big Tech, media, state elections officials, lawyers, business, labor, street activists, and a handful of Republicans. They worked to change voting rules to advantage Democrats, and plotted to thwart Republican efforts to challenge the rules they had already changed or the outcomes they had helped create.

Ball mixes and matches together into a single stew the story of efforts to (1) strategize among Democrats to beat Trump, (2) change voting rules to allow more mail-in balloting, (3) convince voters to vote by mail, (4), finance protective equipment for polling places, (5) win preelection lawsuits for Democrats over Republicans, (6) enlist Big Tech leaders such as Jack Dorsey of Twitter and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook to actively police “disinformation” on their platforms, (7) spread public awareness of the challenges of vote-counting in 2020, (8) promote in-person and mail-in turnout by black voters in particular, (9) control the timing of street protests on the left, and (10) pressure or convince Republican elections officials and state legislators to resist Trump’s post-election schemes. Ball presents this narrative as if it were a single, unified plan directed by the people that she interviewed. We are given no evidence, however, of which people and groups were involved across multiple different tasks, or how coordinated those efforts really were.

The reaction to this story among those on the right has been precisely what anyone familiar with American politics would have predicted. Take, for example, this fundraising email from the North Carolina GOP that hit my inbox Tuesday morning:

BREAKING NEWS: Time report touts ‘cabal of of [sic] powerful people’ behind ‘conspiracy,’ ‘shadow campaign’ to shape election

This is absolute insanity, Dan! Time Magazine just dropped a bombshell report that CONFIRMS that the elites were working to manipulate the 2020 Election. Read it for yourself:

“a well-funded cabal of powerful people, ranging across industries and ideologies, working together behind the scenes to influence perceptions, change rules and laws, steer media coverage and control the flow of information.”

“Though much of this activity took place on the left, it was separate from the Biden campaign and crossed ideological lines, with crucial contributions by nonpartisan and conservative actors.”

There was a conspiracy — but it wasn’t to change votes or tamper with machines. They LITERALLY changed voting rules and manipulated news coverage to ensure that Biden would win last November. This is why we NEED stronger Election Security measures immediately. Add your name if you agree!

At least this particular email adds the cautionary note that this is not about voting machines, undoubtedly to avoid being slapped with yet another of Dominion Voting Systems’ mega-million-dollar defamation suits.

Ball and her editors had to know, with absolute certainty, that this is how her article would be received. So why write it that way? When you look closely, there is less than meets the eye in some places, and more than a few reasons to think that her sources are puffing up their own roles in order to advance their own standing in the progressive world as master operators and saviors of democracy. And there are many unanswered questions, some that cast doubt on her premises, others that should justifiably raise conservative eyebrows.

The most egregious example of the story’s slanted, partisan framing is its efforts to have progressives take credit for the actions of Michigan House speaker Lee Chatfield, Michigan Senate majority leader Mike Shirkey, Detroit canvasser Aaron Van Langevelde, and Georgia secretary of state Brad Raffensperger, all Republicans who did their jobs under pressure from Trump to undo the results of the election. The article spins hypothetical theories about what Trump could offer these people, and tries to portray its progressive heroes as important to their decisions. But no evidence whatsoever is presented to show that any of the groups in the article had any influence on Republican decisions to act honorably — decisions that, unlike those of the Democrats quoted throughout this article, were not simply a matter of advancing their own partisan self-interest.

Who exactly “got states to change voting systems and laws,” and how? Ball tells that story only in vague terms, giving us a brief look at Amber McReynolds of the National Vote at Home Institute, a “nonpartisan” group whose “work helped 37 states and D.C. bolster mail voting” by giving “secretaries of state from both parties technical advice on everything from which vendors to use to how to locate drop boxes.” Given the serious legal issues with how some of these officials acted without their state legislatures, this might have been a story worth telling in greater detail.

We’re told that the members of Ball’s conspiracy were honestly dedicated to protecting a fair result because they prepared to stop Trump from challenging it, and to stop street violence emanating from the right. Did these same actors make preparations for the possibility of the Biden-Harris campaign or its partisans trying to overturn or challenge the vote count? Did they prepare to suppress or counter left-wing street violence, fear of which was a major reason why many shops in major cities were boarded up? Ball hints vaguely that the Chamber of Commerce may have been concerned about this, but did her sources there say so and she left that out, or did they not mention it at all?

The fact that Ball credits her sources with the ability to restrain left-leaning protesters when their side was ahead leaves some serious questions about what their role would have been if the votes had favored Trump. As with a lot of left-leaning commentary on the election, Ball never even gives an instant’s discussion to the idea that it was ever possible that Trump could legitimately have won the election, that he or anyone else ever expected him to or planned for that eventuality.

Then there’s this:

The effort had to overcome heightened skepticism in some communities. Many Black voters preferred to exercise their franchise in person or didn’t trust the mail. National civil rights groups worked with local organizations to get the word out that this was the best way to ensure one’s vote was counted.

Gee, how could anyone possibly get the impression in the summer of 2020 that the mail was untrustworthy? Would that have anything to do with Democrats and the media staging a multi-month public campaign claiming that Trump was conspiring with the Postal Service to sabotage the election? How do you write this article and not acknowledge that?

On the other hand, Ball implicitly admits that the “Resistance” was often self-defeating with its alarmism about Trump staying in office even if he lost the election, much in the same way that “rigged election” conspiracy theorists on the right ended up helping suppress the Republican vote in Georgia on January 5:

Studies have shown that when people don’t think their vote will count or fear casting it will be a hassle, they’re far less likely to participate. Throughout election season, members of Podhorzer’s group minimized incidents of voter intimidation and tamped down rising liberal hysteria about Trump’s expected refusal to concede. They didn’t want to amplify false claims by engaging them, or put people off voting by suggesting a rigged game. “When you say, ‘These claims of fraud are spurious,’ what people hear is ‘fraud,’” Shenker-Osorio says. “What we saw in our pre-election research was that anything that reaffirmed Trump’s power or cast him as an authoritarian diminished people’s desire to vote.”

On the social-media front, Ball identifies Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and now a Biden nominee for a Justice Department role as associate attorney general, as the key person who leaned on Dorsey and Zuckerberg to enforce social-media rules against “election-related falsehoods.” The cozy relationship between the Biden team and social-media giants will doubtless get more scrutiny the next time Republicans are again in position to wield oversight powers.

Ball has typically been a diligent reporter, and there are things in this article worth knowing and exploring. But she really should have been much more careful about throwing around terms like “conspiracy” and “cabal,” and asked harder questions about what her sources were really up to.


The Latest