On Conservative Radio, Misleading Message Is Clear: ‘Democrats Cheat’

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On Conservative Radio, Misleading Message Is Clear: ‘Democrats Cheat’

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November’s midterm elections are still months away, but to many conservative commentators, the fix is already in. Democrats have cheated before, they say, and they will cheat again.

Never mind that the claims are false.

In Lafayette, La., Carol Ross, host of “The Ross Report,” questioned how Democrats could win a presidential election again after a tumultuous few years in power. “They’re going to have to cheat again,” she said. “You know that. There will be rampant cheating.”

In Greenville, S.C., Charlie James, a host on 106.3 WORD, read from a blog post arguing that “the Democrats are going to lose a majority during the midterm elections unless they’re able to cheat in a massive wide-scale way.”

And on WJFN in Virginia, Stephen K. Bannon, the erstwhile adviser to former President Donald J. Trump who was indicted for refusing to comply with subpoenas issued by the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, summed it up this way: “If Democrats don’t cheat, they don’t win.”

Mr. Trump introduced the nation to a flurry of false claims about widespread voter fraud after his electoral loss in 2020. The extent of his efforts has been outlined extensively in the past couple of weeks during the hearings on the Jan. 6 Capitol riot — including a speech that day in which he falsely said Democrats changed voting laws “because they want to cheat.”

Republican politicians and cable outlets like Fox News have carried the torch for Mr. Trump’s conspiracy theories ever since. But the loudest and most consistent booster of these unfounded claims has been talk radio, where conservative hosts reduce the jumble of false voter fraud theories into a two-word mantra: “Democrats cheat.”

Mentions of “Democrats cheating” and similar ideas were raised more than 5,000 times on syndicated radio shows and local broadcasts this year, according to an analysis of data from Critical Mention, a media monitoring service. Similar ideas were mentioned a few hundred times on television shows and podcasts tracked by Critical Mention during the same period.

Radio remains perhaps the most influential conduit for right-wing thought, despite the rise of podcasts and social media. Tens of millions of people nationwide, especially older Americans and blue-collar workers, listen to it regularly. Misinformation experts warn that talk radio channels, many of which air political commentary 24 hours a day, receive far too little scrutiny compared with other mass media. Talk radio is also uniquely difficult to analyze and harder to moderate, because the on-air musings from hosts usually disappear over the airwaves in an instant.

Understand the 2022 Midterm Elections

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Why are these midterm races so important? This year’s races could tip the balance of power in Congress to Republicans, hobbling President Biden’s agenda for the second half of his term. They will also test former President Donald J. Trump’s role as a G.O.P. kingmaker. Here’s what to know:

What are the midterm elections? Midterms take place two years after a presidential election, at the midpoint of a presidential term — hence the name. This year, a lot of seats are up for grabs, including all 435 House seats, 35 of the 100 Senate seats and 36 of 50 governorships.

What do the midterms mean for Biden? With slim majorities in Congress, Democrats have struggled to pass Mr. Biden’s agenda. Republican control of the House or Senate would make the president’s legislative goals a near-impossibility.

What are the races to watch? Only a handful of seats will determine if Democrats maintain control of the House over Republicans, and a single state could shift power in the 50-50 Senate. Here are 10 races to watch in the House and Senate, as well as several key governor’s contests.

When are the key races taking place? The primary gauntlet is already underway. Closely watched races in Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Georgia were held in May, with more taking place through the summer. Primaries run until September before the general election on Nov. 8.

Go deeper. What is redistricting and how does it affect the midterm elections? How does polling work? How do you register to vote? We’ve got more answers to your pressing midterm questions here.

“Liberals or even most moderates never listen to it, they don’t pay attention to it, they don’t see it, they don’t hear it,” said Lewis A. Friedland, a professor who studies radio at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “So you don’t know it exists, you don’t know how widespread and how powerful it really is.” In Wisconsin, he said, local radio stations play “extreme right-wing propaganda” five or six hours a day.

Asked about the false statements, Mr. James, the host of “The Charlie James Show,” and other conservative radio hosts and their networks defended them. Many pointed to examples of voter fraud in the past or raised conspiracy theories about the 2020 election. They said bleak polling results for the Democrats raised alarms about the integrity of the midterm elections.

“I think a host, guest or caller on talk radio might be forgiven wondering if ‘cheating’ might not be needed to win,” said Tom Tradup, the vice president of news and talk programming at the Christian and conservative Salem Radio Network.

Other hosts and radio networks declined to comment or did not respond to requests for comment.

Liberal commentators have also claimed Republicans cheated or will cheat again, but to a far lesser extent. After Stacey Abrams, the Democratic candidate for governor in Georgia, lost in 2018, Democrats raised doubts about the election’s integrity, citing voter suppression. A petition that received nearly 60,000 signatures after the election was titled: “Don’t Let Georgia Republicans Cheat and Steal the Governor’s Mansion From Stacey Abrams.”

As Ms. Abrams campaigns for the office again this year, conservative radio hosts have painted her efforts to improve voter access, particularly for historically disenfranchised groups, as a way to enable cheating.

“This is why Stacey Abrams is doing this in the state of Georgia — to extend the time, the amount of time that people can vote and drop off ballots,” said Jennifer Kerns, a guest on “The Joe Piscopo Show” and host on the All-American Radio network. “It gives them more time to — as you and I aren’t allowed to say — cheat.”

When radio shows are distributed by major syndicators like Premiere Networks, a single falsehood or misleading claim can quickly reach audiences from coast to coast.

Mike Gallagher said on his radio show recently that “the only way the Democrats can expect to win again is if they cheat.” The show was syndicated through the Salem Radio Network, allowing it to reach hundreds of markets from Sacramento, Calif., to Salisbury, Md.

Many of the misleading claims focused on measures to improve voter access during the 2020 presidential election as Covid-19 swept the country. Conservative commentators said attempts to expand vote-by-mail options or ballot drop-off locations were tantamount to cheating or directly enabled cheating.

Some radio networks cracked down on election fraud claims after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. Cumulus Media, which owns and operates 406 radio stations, released a memo at the time saying hosts could not “dog-whistle talk about ‘stolen elections’” on its network. Over a year later, several shows distributed through Westwood One, its syndication arm, have aired claims that Democrats cheated or will cheat in the midterms.

Michael Knowles, a radio and podcast host syndicated through Westwood One, gave a stark warning about the midterm elections. “They’re just going to try to cheat and steal the election,” he said. “That’s what they’re going to try to do. You’re seeing it right now.”

Lars Larson, another radio host syndicated to over 100 stations through Westwood One, warned that the increasing popularity of mail-in voting meant “Democrats nearly always win — or, at least, they cheat to a win.”

After Mr. Trump lost his re-election bid, many false attacks focused on Dominion Voting Systems, an election technology company falsely accused of tampering with election results. Mentions of the company plummeted after January 2021, as the company filed a lawsuit accusing several groups, including Fox News, of advancing lies that devastated its reputation and business. But radio hosts continued implying that Democrats would cheat by expanding mail-in voting or conducting so-called ballot harvesting, a law in many states allowing third parties to collect and return ballots.

“You don’t get as specific as a particular company so they can’t come back and sue you,” said Jerry Del Colliano, a professor at New York University and publisher of Inside Music Media. He added that the shift in strategy toward vaguer cheating claims “allows them to continue with this misinformation that their audience just loves” without risking serious consequences from companies or their syndicators.

That leaves many hosts walking the line between detailing specific claims of stolen elections and rankling advertisers or executives.

“I hesitate to talk about it,” the actor Joe Piscopo said on his radio show. “You can’t say ‘election,’ and then you can’t say the word ‘fraud’ right after that. But you can say it was bought, there were shenanigans. I have catchphrases, like ‘shenanigans’ or ‘we’re not sure what happened.’”

When a listener called into “The Lars Larson Show” to suggest that Republicans could cheat to keep up with Democratic cheating, Mr. Larson expressed mixed feelings.

“My gut says yes to that,” he replied. “My brain says no.”

In an interview, Mr. Larson pointed to numerous voter fraud claims from the 2020 election, including a debunked report that nearly 20,000 votes were received late in Arizona. He added that the lack of proof was expected because “with election fraud, especially vote-by-mail, you’ll never have proof.”

Unlike television or even podcasts, radio welcomes live listener input. That can give anyone a moment in the national spotlight for off-the-cuff remarks and build the appearance of consensus for election conspiracy theories. Some of the strongest claims of voter fraud came from callers, with hosts often agreeing with their claims.

“There’s no penalty for having these people on the air,” Mr. Friedland at the University of Wisconsin-Madison said of the callers. “In fact, there’s a benefit. Your business does better if you can skirt the extremes, because that gets more people calling in and listening.”

As the midterms draw near, commentators are also contending with the unintended consequences of their cheating claims.

Callers repeatedly expressed doubts about voting at all, falsely claiming that elections are so rigged by Democrats that their votes no longer matter. In response, radio hosts have implored Republicans to vote in even larger numbers — so much so that a supposed Democratic cheat would prove ineffective.

“I’ll tell you what’s happened — and I give the Democrats a lot of credit for this,” said Michael Berry, a radio host based in Houston, “is they have convinced a lot of people on our side that it’s not worth it to vote.”

Audio produced by Jack D’Isidoro.