On conservative radio, the misleading message is clear: ‘Democrats are cheating’

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The November midterm elections are still months away, but many conservative commentators say the decision is already in place. They say the Democrats have cheated before and will cheat again.

It doesn’t matter that the statements are false.

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

In Greenville, South Carolina, Charlie James, host of 106.3 WORD, read from a blog post that claimed “the democrats will lose their majority in the midterms unless they can cheat massively on a large scale.”

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

mr. Trump introduced the nation to a wave of false claims of widespread voter fraud after his 2020 election loss. The extent of his efforts were detailed in the past few weeks during hearings on Jan. 6 Riots on the Capitol — including a speech the other day in which he fake said Democrats changed voting laws “because they want to cheat.”

Republican politicians and cable media like Fox News are carrying the torch for Mr. Trump conspiracy theories since then. But the loudest and most consistent amplifier of these baseless claims is talk radio, where conservative hosts reduce the jumble of bogus voter fraud theories to a two-word mantra: “Democrats cheat.”

Mentions of “Democrat fraud” and similar ideas have been brought up more than 5,000 times on syndicated radio and local shows this year, according to an analysis of data by Critical Mention, a media monitoring service. Similar ideas were mentioned several hundred times in 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 across the country, especially older Americans and employees, listen to it regularly. Disinformation experts warn that talk radio channels, many of which broadcast political commentary 24 hours a day, receive too little attention compared to other mass media. Talk radio is also uniquely difficult to analyze and harder to moderate, as on-air musings from hosts tend to disappear into the air in an instant.

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

Asked about the false allegations, 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 the dismal poll results for Democrats raised concerns about the integrity of the midterm elections.

“I think a talk radio host, guest or caller could be forgiven for wondering if ‘deception’ is necessary to win,” said Tom Trudup, vice president of news and talk programming at Christian and conservative Salem Radio Network.

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

Liberal commentators also argue that Republicans have cheated or will cheat again, but to a much lesser extent. After Stacey Abrams, the Democratic candidate for governor of Georgia, lost in 2018, Democrats raised doubts on election 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.”

Even as Ms. Abrams campaigned for office again this year, conservative radio hosts painted her efforts to improve voter access, particularly for historically disenfranchised groups, as a way to enable fraud.

“That’s why Stacey Abrams is doing this in the state of Georgia — to extend the time, the time that people can vote and drop off ballots,” said Jennifer Kearns, guest on “The Joe Piscopo Show” and All-American Radio Network host . “It gives them more time to – as we’re not allowed to say – cheat.”

When shows like “The Joe Piscopo Show” are distributed by major syndicators like Sinclair Broadcast Group or Premiere Networks, a single lie or misleading statement can quickly reach audiences from coast to coast.

Mike Gallagher said this on his radio show recently “the only way democrats can expect to win again is if they cheat.” The show was syndicated through the Salem Radio Network, allowing him to reach hundreds of markets from Sacramento, California to Salisbury, Maryland.

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 have said that attempts to expand postal voting options or ballot drop-off locations are tantamount to or directly enable fraud.

Some radio stations have cracked down on allegations of election fraud since Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. Cumulus Media, which owns and operates 406 radio stationsdrop a note said at the time that hosts could not “blow the whistle on ‘stolen election’ talk” on his network. More than a year later, several shows carried by Westwood One, its syndicated affiliate, aired allegations that Democrats had cheated or would cheat in the midterm elections.

Michael Knowles, radio and podcast host syndicated via Westwood Oneissued a stark warning about the midterm elections. “They will just 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 more than 100 stations through Westwood One, warned that the growing popularity of mail-in voting means “Democrats almost always win — or at least cheat to win.”

After Mr. Trump lost his re-election bid, many fake attacks targeted Dominion Voting Systems, an election technology company falsely accused of tampering with election results. Mentions of the company plummeted after January 2021, and so did the company filed a lawsuit accusing several groups, including Fox News, of spreading lies that devastated her reputation and business. But radio hosts continued to hint that Democrats would cheat expanding postal voting or conduct the so-called collection of ballotslaw in many states allowing third parties to collect and return ballots.

“You don’t get as specific as a specific company so they can’t come back and sue you,” said Jerry Del Coliano, a professor at New York University and publisher of Inside the music media. He added that the shift in strategy to more vague claims of fraud “allows them to continue with this disinformation that their audience just adores” without risking serious repercussions from the companies or their unions.

This leaves many hosts walking the line between detailing specific allegations of stolen elections and ranking advertisers or executives.

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

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

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

In an interview, Mr. Larson cited multiple allegations of voter fraud from the 2020 election, including a debunked report that nearly 20,000 votes were received late in Arizona. He added that the lack of evidence was to be expected because “with election fraud, especially postal voting, you never have evidence.”

Unlike television or even podcasts, radio welcomes input from a live listener. It could give anyone a moment in the national spotlight for inappropriate remarks and build a semblance of consensus for election conspiracy theories. Some of the strongest claims of voter fraud come from callers, with hosts often agreeing with their claims.

“There is no penalty for putting these people on the air,” Mr. Friedland of the University of Wisconsin-Madison said of the callers. “There is actually a benefit. Your business does better if you can avoid the extremes, because that gets more people to call and listen.”

As midterms approach, commentators are also grappling with the unintended consequences of their cheating claims.

Callers repeatedly express doubts about voting at all, falsely claiming that the election is so rigged by Democrats that their votes no longer matter. In response, radio hosts urged Republicans to vote in even greater numbers — so many that the Democrats’ alleged fraud would be ineffective.

“I’ll tell you what happened — and I give the Democrats a lot of credit for this,” said Michael Berry, a Houston-based radio host, “they convinced a lot of people on our side that it wasn’t worth voting for.”

Audio produced by Jack D’Isidoro.

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