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News media faces conundrum as Republicans baselessly cry 'fraud' again, this time in California

New York(CNN Business) A version of this article first appeared in the "Reliable Sources" newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.

Tuesday's California recall is American politics in a nutshell.

"Recalls are weird," Ari Melber said on MSNBC Monday night. This recall is definitely weird. This moment in politics is weird and tumultuous and poisonous. It's hard for anyone but news junkies to make sense of the nonsense.

This recall is specifically about California Gov. Gavin Newsom, and the Republicans who are trying to unseat him, but it's also about Covid-19. It's also about Donald Trump and his takeover of the Republican party. It's also about the GOP's adherence to voter fraud fabrications that deny the Democratic party's legitimacy and undercut democracy. It's "a preview of coming attractions," Newsom's top strategist Sean Clegg told reporters in Long Beach on Monday.

How so? Well right-wing media outlets have seeded a "stolen election" storyline, putting forth the cockamamie idea that Democrats can only win in (dark blue) California if there's mass vote fraud. It's the Big Lie playbook at the state level. It's because "they know that this dude is going to lose," Joy Reid said on MSNBC Monday night.

That "dude" is the GOP's leading contender in the election, Larry Elder, the far-right radio host turned politician. Elder has repeatedly told Fox audiences that he is worried about cheating. He has not committed to accepting the results of the election, as NBC's Jacob Soboroff showed by asking him the question several times.

Trump made it all worse on Monday by saying in a statement, "Does anybody really believe that the California Recall Election isn't rigged?" He explicitly sided with the "fraud" lie narrative and said it's all "just another scam," which, logically, could discourage Trump fans from casting a ballot in California. Conservative commentator Rich Lowry snarkily called it "an ongoing 'don't get out the vote' operation..."

"Battery acid on our Constitution"

So let's address what Clegg meant by "coming attractions." Regarding Tuesday's election result, he expressed supreme confidence, according to CNN's Dan Merica: Clegg said "there's no scenario where we lose tomorrow."

But with Elder's campaign already alleging election impropriety, Clegg said, "We saw it in the November election. We saw it in the January 6th insurrection. We do not have a Democratic and Republican party in this country. We have a democratic party and an anti-democratic party. They're trying to throw battery acid on our Constitution, on our electoral norms. And it's a preview of coming attractions. We're going to see the same thing in 2022 and the same thing in 2024. And unfortunately, it's become the Trump playbook and they're going to it. And they're going back to it."

The GOP's hollow cries about cheating are an ongoing conundrum for newsrooms. Outlets that call out the B.S. are tagged as biased or worse. Outlets that overlook it are enabling an undemocratic concept to take root. Here's a real-time example: On Monday evening reporters like NBC News' Alex Seitz-Wald noticed that "Elder's campaign is promoting a website that claims the recall is over, Newsom won, and they found voter fraud through a statistical analysis of the results."

The only problem, as Seitz-Wald wrote, is that "the election hasn't happened yet."

But this website,, was apparently published with the expectation that Elder will lose and will want to challenge the results. The site, bankrolled in part by Elder's campaign, also alludes to violence. "We MUST protect election integrity," the homepage says. "They say that in America, there are four boxes of liberty. The soapbox, the ballot box, the jury box, and the ammo box." The implication is that election challenges will happen at the "jury box" with the "hope" that the "ammo box" -- this is a quote from the website -- "remains closed."

Real people read this stuff!

A timely reminder: Disinformation campaigns about campaigns and elections hurt real people. "Election officials take it personally when somebody is just making unfounded accusations about what we do," Donna Johnston, president of the CA Association of Clerks and Election Officials, told the AP.

On the flip side, the Los Angeles Times recently quoted a GOP activist, Matt Francis, who expressed confidence that Newsom will indeed be recalled. "He's worked to make it happen for months, and from online commentary he's seen in recent weeks, he senses that Californians want a new leader," The Times wrote. "But if the recall fails?" Francis said, "There is no way I am going to believe it."

The Los Angeles Times story pointed out that "conservative conspiracy theories" have been painting Dems as cheaters for a very long time. But it's now supercharged like never before.

"Focus on the hard right and ignore the middle"

CNN correspondent Kyung Lah writes from Long Beach: "Larry Elder didn't do any public rallies over the weekend. What did he do? He focused his efforts on right-wing media, talking up baseless election fraud claims. It's all ridiculous given the two to one registration advantage Democrats have over Republicans. With Trump chiming in today, it's similar to the behavior I'm seeing when I cover Arizona's sham 'audit' -- focus on the hard right and ignore the middle. It just struck me as illogical since Elder needs a bigger, not smaller audience."

Lowry's take

Brian Lowry writes from L.A.: "The recall process in California is obviously strange, but the current use of it has been especially so. I can't help but note the contrast to 2003, where Arnold Schwarzenegger capitalized on his celebrity and the shortened election cycle to muscle his way into politics, and I think a lot of people took the wrong lesson from it. Schwarzenegger was opportunistic, but he was serious about wanting the job. During the latest election, at times it seemed as if the two most media-friendly GOP contenders in the race, Elder and Caitlyn Jenner, were campaigning with one eye on the governor's office and the other on media opportunities in the election's wake. Media Matters' Matthew Gertz tallied up the Fox appearances by candidates, which suggested that in the battle for attention, Elder could be a winner in terms of his current vocation even if the vote doesn't go his way."

For the record

-- To get caught up on how a recall works, check out Zachary B. Wolf's "speed read."

-- CNN's Maeve Reston has "five places to watch" in the recall.

-- Reality-based GOP strategist Rob Stutzman on "Erin Burnett OutFront:" Obviously "fraud is not happening" in this race. But Elder, with his winks and nods to election-rigging, "is just trying to be the most popular Republican in a state where it doesn't really mean anything to be the most popular Republican."

-- For a different view from the right, here's Mediaite columnist John Ziegler arguing that Newsom's "strong allies in the news media" defeated the recall.

-- Cable news networks are adding hours of live coverage late Tuesday and into Wednesday for the vote count.

-- For a local report, The Sacramento Bee is plugging a "Recall Election Night Live Show" Tuesday night.

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