Unmasking Biased Writing

Cleta Mitchell, Chair of the Election Integrity Network, at the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference in April. Credit…Matt Rourke/Associated Press 

June 6, 2022

by Patrice Johnson, Chair, Pure Integrity Michigan Elections

If you’re like me, you grit your teeth and try to ignore the subtle biases that muddy today’s news. Then once in a while a headline crosses a bridge too far, and you feel the need to speak out. This happened to me after reading the headline, “Lawyer Who Plotted to Overturn Trump Loss Recruits Election Deniers to Watch Over the Vote” in the May 30 edition of the New York Times

I suppose the problem traces to my parents. Dad was a medical doctor and Mom, a nationally syndicated columnist, so I grew up sandwiched between the Hippocratic Oath and the top two journalistic responsibilities: To report the objective truth and to do no harm. I was also aware that the editor, not the writer, crafts the headline. Give Alexandra Berzon the benefit of the doubt. I thought. She’sa Pulitzer Prize winner and new to the NYT. Her editor probably chose those loaded wordsto grab reader attention. 

I readied my highlighter, and trained my focus on the lead sentence.  

In a hotel conference center outside Harrisburg, Pa., Cleta Mitchell, one of the key figures in a failed scheme to overturn Donald J. Trump’s defeat, was leading a seminar on “election integrity.”

Scheme stood out like red pepper flakes on a mozzarella pizza. Where was the respectful title, President? As offensive, election integrity was enclosed in quotation marks although the phrase was not a direct quote. This punctuation error, common to amateur writers, equates to gesturing air quotes while speaking. The mock quotation marks convey sarcasm or dismissiveness. No writer of NYT caliber would make that sort of mistake.  

The former English teacher and newspaper editor in me felt compelled to correct the lead sentence. Word-smithing an objective lead took me all of 30 seconds.  

In a hotel conference center outside Harrisburg, Pa., Cleta Mitchell, one of the key figures in contesting the results of the 2020 presidential election, was leading a seminar on election integrity.  

Prejudicial language marred the next few paragraphs. I marked the bias and sleights of hand and explained the issues and remedies.  

Bias: “We are taking the lessons we learned in 2020 and we are going forward to make sure they never happen again,” Ms. Mitchell told the crowd of about 150 activists-in-training.

She would be “putting you to work,” she told them. 

Issue: To repeat a word in close proximity is poor style. The double use of told paints the speaker as bossy. Better to substitute varied verbs. 

Bias: In the days after the 2020 election, Ms. Mitchell was among a cadre of Republican lawyers who frantically compiled unsubstantiated accusations, debunked claims and an array of confusing and inconclusive eyewitness reports to build the case that the election was marred by fraud. Courts rejected the cases and election officials were unconvinced, thwarting a stunning assault on the transfer of power

Issue: Cadre conveys militaristic tones and refers to a core group of trained personnel able to assume control and to train others. Extraneous use of adverbs, especially those ending in ly, is considered lazy writing and inserts bias. It tends to impose the writer’s opinions on the reader instead of showing them by example. 

Remedy: In the days after the 2020 election, Ms. Mitchell was among a throng of Republican lawyers who compiled an array of eyewitness reports and affidavits attesting to election wrongdoing. Courts refused to take the cases and many election officials remained unconvinced.  

Bias: Now Ms. Mitchell is prepping for the next election. Working with a well-funded network of organizations on the right, including the Republican National Committee, she is recruiting election conspiracists into an organized cavalry of activists monitoring elections.

Remedy: Now Ms. Mitchell is prepping for the next election. Working with a well-funded network of organizations, including the Republican National Committee, she is recruiting citizens to monitor elections. 

Bias: In seminars around the country, Ms. Mitchell is marshaling volunteers to stake outelection offices, file information requests, monitor voting, work at polling places and keep detailed records of their work. She has tapped into a network of grass-root groups thatpromote misinformation and espouse wild theories about the 2020 election, including the fiction that President Biden’s victory could still be decertified and Mr. Trump reinstated.

Issue: Note the loaded language and the sleight of hand with the assignment of titles. The writing refers to President Biden, yet Mr., not former President, Trump.

Remedy: In seminars around the country, Ms. Mitchell is shepherding volunteers to have a presence in election offices, file information requests, monitor voting, work at polling places and keep detailed records of their work. She has tapped into a network of grass-root groups that sprung up with concerns regarding election integrity after the 2020 election. 

Bias: One concern is the group’s intent to research the backgrounds of local and state officials to determine whether each is a “friend or foe” of the movement. Many officialsalready feel under attack by those who falsely contend that the 2020 election was stolen

Issues: Heavy-handed writer intrusion using the adverb already. Use of passive voice, often apparent through the use of by, slows the flow and is taboo among professional writers. Here, its deliberate use positions the officials as victims.  

Remedy: One concern is the group’s intent to research the backgrounds of local and state officials to determine whether each is a “friend or foe” of election integrity. Citizens who suspect malfeasance in the 2020 elections express concerns that officials are often unaware of the laws or so overburdened or ill-instructed that they are unable to perform their jobs.  

Bias: An extensive review of Ms. Mitchell’s effort, including documents and social media posts, interviews and attendance at the Harrisburg seminar, reveals a loose network of influential groups and fringe figures. They include election deniers as well as mainstream organizations such as the Heritage Foundation’s political affiliate, Tea Party Patriots and the R.N.C., which has participated in Ms. Mitchell’s seminars. The effort, called the Election Integrity Network, is a project of the Conservative Partnership Institute, a right-wing think tank with close ties and financial backing from Mr. Trump’s political operation.

Remedy: An extensive review of Ms. Mitchell’s effort, including documents and social media posts, interviews and attendance at the Harrisburg seminar, reveals a loose network of groups and individuals. They include concerned citizens as well as mainstream organizations such as the Heritage Foundation’s political affiliate, Tea Party Patriots and the R.N.C., which has participated in Ms. Mitchell’s seminars. The effort, called the Election Integrity Network, is a project of the Conservative Partnership Institute, a think tank with close ties and financial backing from Mr. Trump’s political organization. 

Bias: Ms. Mitchell says she is creating “a volunteer army of citizens” who can counter what she describes as Democratic bias in election offices. 

Remedy: What she describes as is superfluous language. It implies Mitchell’s claims of Democratic bias are her less-than-trustworthy opinion. Delete: what she describes as

Bias: “We’re going to be watching. We’re going to take back our elections,” she said in an April interview with John Fredericks, a conservative radio host. “The only way they win is to cheat,” she added.  

Remedy: Mitchell’s quote is powerful on its own. Adding the tag, she added, diffuses what would otherwise stand as a powerful periodic sentence. Delete: 

Bias: The claim that Mr. Trump lost the election because of improper conduct in election offices or rampant voter fraud is false. Mr. Trump’s defeat was undisputed among election officials and certified by Democrats and Republicans, with many recounts and audits verifying the outcome. Mr. Trump’s Justice Department found no evidence of widespread fraud. Mr. Trump lost more than 50 of his post election challenges in court.

Remedy: This paragraph consists entirely of biased editorializing. Use of the word auditsis misleading, as risk limiting audits are not actual audits. Referring to the Justice Department as Trump’s implies the DOJ was loyal to the sitting president rather than to the law. (President Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder might agree—and yes, I’m editorializing.) There is no saving this paragraph. Delete it. 

Bias: Campaigns, parties and outside groups from both sides of the political spectrum regularly form poll-monitoring operations and recruit poll workers. And Republicans have in the past boasted of plans to build an “army” of observers, raising fears about widespread voter intimidation and conflict at the polls that largely have not materialized.

Issue: Here we go again with the teenager-like sarcasm via the use of unattributed quotation marks. 

Remedy: And Republicans have in the past announced plans to build an “army” of observers, prompting the Democrat Party to voice fears about widespread voter intimidation and conflict at the polls that largely have not materialized. 

Bias: Some former election officials say they are hopeful that when election skeptics observe the process they may finally be convinced that the system is sound. But several who examined Ms. Mitchell’s training materials and statements at the request of The New York Times sounded alarms about her tactics.

Remedy: The reference to unnamed sources and complete absence of attributed quotes is a red flag to bias and propaganda. Delete paragraph unless quotes can be attributed to credible sources.  

Bias: Ms. Mitchell’s trainings promote particularly aggressive methods — with a focus on surveillance — that appear intended to feed on activists’ distrust and create pressure on local officials, rather than ensure voters’ access to the ballot, they say.  

Remedy: Buried in this sentence’s excessive complexity is a fundamental lack of logic. In what world does a focus on surveillance indicate particularly aggressive methods? Who is they? Delete paragraph. 

Bias: A test drive of the strategy in the Virginia governor’s race last year highlighted how quickly the work — when conducted by people convinced of falsehoods about fraud — can disrupt the process and spiral into bogus claims, even in a race Republicans won.  

Remedy: The point of this sentence should be that the strategy led to victory. No evidence is cited to support the claim of spiraling bogus claims. 

The remainder of Berzon’s article contains spotty and self-evident bias. Whoever was going to the trouble to infuse the slanted language into the story must have run out of steam.  

I had gone to the trouble of critiquing Berzon’s work with the initial intent of educating her and her editor on their wayward ways. On second thought, I hope fellow PIMErs may find the analysis useful in identifying bias and resisting its lure.  

To view the rest of the story click here: “Lawyer Who Plotted to Overturn Trump Loss Recruits Election Deniers to Watch Over the Vote

Published by pureintegrityformichiganelections

Dedicated to restoring election integrity in Michigan.

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