This is an excerpt from Steve Krakauer’s media watchdog newsletter, “Fourth Watch.” Sign up for it here.
During a National Geographic interview on Thursday, Dr. Anthony Fauci was asked about whether it would be safe to vote in person in November. “If you go and wear a mask, if you observe the physical distancing, and don’t have a crowded situation, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to do that,” he said.
It was the kind of comment a curious, intellectually honest media might cover in a big way. This isn’t President Trump saying in-person voting is safe, but Dr. Fauci. Instead, the comment was barely mentioned, mainly because the media has become preoccupied with a different form of voting, and specifically, the avenue to accomplish it. Mail-in voting is the current storyline of the moment, and somehow, the U.S. Postal Service has become a lightning rod. And in embracing the story, the media has fed into the conspiracy theories, which are popping up all over the internet.
President Trump is not going to intentionally slow down the mail, as one of the rare rational fact-checks (from USA Today) made clear. But at the same time, Trump is feeding into the drama — and that’s what it is, drama — by not outright swatting away the conspiracies. Trump can sow chaos — a sort of cultural chaos that comes from knowing exactly the right media buttons to push. As I’ve written before, he’s the wrecking ball, not the architect, and this postal wrecking ball is the latest absurd media angle to scare the public. Coverage has been some shade of this — from The Week: “Trump’s Post Office meddling is plainly illegal.”
The conspiracies now have centered around the idea that some dark forces in the government are literally removing mailboxes. A viral photo from Oregon showed mailboxes in a truck being removed. Turns out, they were being replaced after they had been vandalized. New Jersey Rep. Mikie Sherrill tweeted a similar picture which saw more than 5,600 retweets, and she only later noted they were being replaced by newer mailboxes (which you can actually tell from the original photo). Actress Jamie Lee Curtis tweeted a picture, with 5,000 retweets, and claimed someone (with “a red cap on with white letters” — ominous!) was stealing a mailtruck…
Or there’s this tweet, which some guy tweeted and then saw a massive 107,000-plus retweets, which claims to be from the postal workers union calling out “fascism” … except it’s completely made up, and was made by some graphic designer.
Some basic googling can bring you to a blog on the USPS website from Sept. 19, 2016 (wait, that was during the Obama administration), called “Where Have All The Collection Boxes Gone?” “Nationally, the number of collection boxes declined by more than 12,000 in the past 5 years,” the blog reads. “It’s a tough balancing act for the Postal Service. Some collection boxes are barely used and are expensive to maintain.”
In other words, this is not new by any stretch. It may be all part of a PR campaign by the USPS to ride a political wave during the heat of a divisive election campaign, fueled by the anti-Trump media sentiment ready at a moment’s notice to believe any conspiratorial notion.
So the next time you see some guest on cable news (or a host), going on about how Trump is trying to rig the election by messing with the mail — or someone who is calling for literal “unrest in the streets” over it — take it with a postage stamp-sized grain of salt. And dig in deeper, before believing the media-driven conspiracies.