One of the more bizarre moments of this endlessly weird election season happened yesterday on Fox News, as the cable news network's hosts and anchors appeared to be operating in completely different versions of reality.
First, Maria Bartiromo dedicated nearly her entire hour-long program to spreading a wild conspiracy theory—born in the fever swamps of a right-wing message board and tweeted by President Donald Trump on Saturday night—that some electronic voting machines had "switched" or "deleted" votes cast for the president.
Rudy Giuliani, who was appointed over the weekend to oversee Trump's legal efforts contesting the election results, told Bartiromo that he had "proof that I can't disclose yet" about "corrupt machines." Separately, Trump campaign attorney Sidney Powell joined Bartiromo to proclaim that "Trump won by not just hundreds of thousands of votes, but by millions of votes that were shifted by this software that was designed expressly for that purpose." There is so much evidence of this fraud, she claimed that "I feel like it is coming in through a fire hose." Notably, however, neither Powell nor Giuliani offered much of the supposedly readily available evidence.
But the really weird part happened after Bartiromo's show ended and Fox News anchor Eric Shawn took the helm. After playing a clip of Philadelphia Commissioner Al Schmidt, the highest-ranking Republican in the city government, declaring that he had seen no evidence of widespread fraud in the city this year, Shawn took aim at the Dominion conspiracy. "As of today, there is no evidence of any widespread fraud affecting the outcome of the presidential election," Shawn concluded. "Our precious democracy was not tampered with."
The Trump years have created some obvious tensions between the opinionated hosts of Fox News' programs and the network's team of reporters and anchors who are tasked with delivering facts. But the divide has never seemed as stark as in the days since the election. The Sean Hannitys and Maria Bartiromos of the Fox News universe have raced to promote increasingly outrageous theories about the results—appealing to the favor of their number one biggest fan and giving false hope to his legions of followers—while the news division has dutifully reported that the president lost and that his myriad legal challenges of the results have been mostly meritless and quickly dismissed.
After Maria Bartiromo devoted her entire show this morning to promoting Trump's Dominion conspiracy, Fox News anchor Eric Shawn debunks it and other voter fraud claims, declaring that "such baseless and false claims are an insult" to election officials and workers. pic.twitter.com/ksM2hGIJqn
— Justin Baragona (@justinbaragona) November 15, 2020
While the reporters and news anchors are getting their information from official sources like city commissioners and election officials at all levels of government, the Dominion conspiracy theory seems to have originated with a false claim made anonymously on a pro-Trump website. It rose quickly through the less trustworthy parts of the right-wing mediasphere until it caught the president's attention.
In an all-caps tweet on Saturday night, Trump highlighted a report from One America News Network (OANN), a right-wing outlet, that claimed voting machines made by Dominion Voting Systems had "switched" more than 200,000 votes from Trump to Biden and "deleted" another 900,000 Trump votes. That made it a story worthy of being covered by Trump's symbiotes at Fox News and elsewhere.
It is, to be clear, completely unsubstantiated.
The OANN report that Trump tweeted claimed that "data obtained from Edison Research," a polling firm, proved the allegations. But Edison Research has published no such report and has no data suggesting anything like that, the company's president told The Dispatch.
Furthermore, Dominion Voting Systems has told the Associated Press that they have no evidence of "any vote switching or alleged software issues with our voting systems." And Edward Perez, global director of technology for the OSET Institute, a nonpartisan nonprofit that monitors elections around the world, told The New York Times that the group has seen no evidence of problems with Dominion voting machines that would cause votes to be recorded incorrectly.
The few instances of "irregularities" in vote counts that lend the slightest whiff of believability to things like the Dominion conspiracy seem to fall apart upon closer scrutiny. In Michigan, for example, mistakes that election officials said were "human error" led to some results changing as those slips were identified and fixed. A viral tweet that showed Biden suddenly gaining 138,000 votes in Michigan while Trump gained none was the result of a glitch in the reporting system, not the result of vote counting issues. The numbers were quickly corrected. And, as Republican officials in Michigan reminded The New York Times over the weekend, election results are certified only after a bipartisan group of canvassers double-check the vote count in every county.
To be fair, conservatives do not have a monopoly on spreading misleading allegations about corrupt voting machines. After the 2016 election, there was widespread speculation, mostly on the political left, that Russian hackers may have infiltrated voting systems to nudge the results toward Trump—just one part of the even wilder theories about Trump's status as an alleged Russian agent. It was true that the Obama administration had caught Russia-based attempts at hacking voter information, but a Senate Intelligence Committee report in 2019 found no evidence that hackers had attempted to alter vote counts.
The main difference, this time, is that the president is actively encouraging and spreading these stories. Even though we should all know better by now, that does lend a degree of seriousness to debunked theories that should not be taken seriously until we see some of that "fire hose" of evidence that's always kept just out of sight.