Is Greg Abbott an ‘election denier’? How sloppy reporting unfairly tarred Texas governor

Texans, did you know you re-elected — cue dramatic music — an “election denier” as governor?

That’s according to the news site Axios. The way it reached that conclusion about Gov. Greg Abbott is a tale of our fractured media era, obliteration of nuance and Abbott’s efforts to straddle the fence. Let’s unpack it.

Shortly after the Nov. 8 midterm elections, Axios posted a tracker looking at how “deniers” of the results of the 2020 presidential elections fared. It shows that of nine such candidates in key gubernatorial races, three won, including Abbott.

A footnote reports that the information is repackaged from The Associated Press and the website FiveThirtyEight and includes candidates “who have ‘raised questions’ [about] or ‘fully denied’ the 2020 outcome, which of course is that Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump.

And FiveThirtyEight, known for data-based journalism? It says its information comes from Reuters, the worldwide news service. It links to a 2021 story in which Abbott defends audits of election results in four Texas counties, including Tarrant. That piece quotes Abbott as saying: “Why do we audit everything in this world, but people raise our hands in concern when we audit elections, which is fundamental to our democracy?”

Not much of a denial of results there. Not even much question raising. But surely other sources have more, right?

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott speaks during an election night party Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022, in McAllen, Texas. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott speaks during an election night party Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022, in McAllen, Texas. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

The Washington Post puts Abbott in the dreaded category, too. Its criteria are even broader, calling candidates election deniers merely for expressing “support for a partisan post-election ballot review.” CNN adds a little more meat, noting that Abbott backed Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s obnoxious lawsuit seeking review of several swing states’ vote results. But CNN also reports that Abbott congratulated Biden upon his inauguration.

For all that, the governor is an election denier?

Some of this is Abbott’s fault. He has mastered the art of throwing a bone to the far right of his party without completely jumping on board with the obsession of the moment. In addition to praising the Paxton lawsuit, the governor also sanctioned the county audits ordered by his secretary of state, John Scott of Fort Worth. That followed pressure from Trump.

But in this environment, it’s important to recognize what Abbott did not do. He did not embrace the Texas Republican Party’s flatout election denial. He did not say that Biden was illegitimate or that the election was fraudulent. He did not cave to Trump’s demand to let the Legislature, in a special session, consider ordering a full-blown audit.

There are worlds of difference between Abbott’s behavior and that of, say, Kari Lake, the Arizona Republican who ran for governor — and lost — on a full-blown platform of Trump Was Robbed.

Lumping them together points to the troubling way news media have approached this issue. Axios prides itself on a disjointed presentation that it calls “Smart Brevity,” but what it did here is too dumb and too brief. Relying on third-hand information, it slapped Abbott and others with labels they did not deserve.

And why? Too often lately, media outlets have decided that deviation from an official point of view must be called out as misinformation. The intent is mostly good, but sloppy execution — often by inexperienced “aggregators” relying on reporting they did not do — bleeds out important nuance or questions.

During the COVID pandemic, for instance, many sensible people found it suspicious that a new respiratory virus emerged in a part of China that hosts a major research lab for such pathogens. But because Trump was one of the unreasonable people doing the same, it was declared out of bounds, even racist.

Years later, those questions still don’t have good answers.

There were important questions about the execution of the 2020 election, too — of every election, in fact. When states revamped election procedures on the fly to respond to COVID, it’s fair to review whether they did so in accordance with their own laws and whether it was wise and necessary. (It’s also fair to note that Abbott himself was one of the people making such changes.)

There’s still no reason to think there was extensive fraud, or even much at all. But reporters should dig into such things. Many aim too often to enforce government information, not question it.

All this matters for confidence in our electoral systems. No, you’re never going to convince some diehard MAGA types that voting is secure. But it’s bad for the country when, a week after an election, some states or counties still can’t report their results. It’s always going to prompt suspicion.

Media should ask hard questions about these processes and demand accountability for officials who oversee them. But it’s easier to take someone else’s sweeping generalizations and repackage them — with brevity, perhaps, but clearly without much smartness.