Perhaps the first thing you notice about CNN’s interview of Arizona Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake on Sunday is that Lake, unlike most cable-news guests dialing in from home, is more appealingly lit and filmed than the host.
Dana Bash, hosting “State of the Union,” benefited from the network’s studio lighting and makeup team, but the familiar CNN aesthetic is a probably-intentionally-metaphorical harsh, bright light. Lake goes for gauzy and warm — because Lake, unlike many cable-news guests and most politicians, is experienced both with being on television and with understanding the limitations of television as a format.
All of which makes television a particularly useful format for her to make false claims about election security and her role in seeding doubt about the 2020 presidential contest.
There’s an old comedy sketch, the source of which escapes me at the moment, in which a witness is offering testimony in court. Asked if he committed a crime, he replies sarcastically, making obvious jokes about his behavior and cracking up the court in the process. Then the prosecutor simply asks that the transcript be read back: Suddenly his jokes are stripped of sarcasm, and the testimony becomes a confession.
The intent of the sketch was not to offer an observation on the difference in how information is shared in conversation versus the written word, but it has that effect. In the room, in real-time, the witness testimony was amusing and exaggerated. But stopping to consider what was said — something that often doesn’t happen in conversation — reveals something else entirely.
This has long been a limitation of cable news. People like Tucker Carlson benefit from giving their audiences no opportunity to stop and reflect on what’s being said; they simply elevate emotional responses based on particular presentations of information that would crumble under scrutiny. If you stop and read the transcript, you see how this works.
In her interview with Lake, Bash did precisely the thing that she should have done: She challenged Lake on her repeated false claims about the election. But, because this is television news and because television news exists in a perpetual present loosely tied to a hazy immediate past, Lake was able to skitter along just out of Bash’s reach. Again, this is in part because Lake knows the format well, as she reminded Bash at one point: “I have been sitting on your side of the desk for a long time.” So the two fought to a draw.
If we stop and read the transcript, though, we see how Lake failed to answer the question — and, in fact, made obvious how fundamentally dishonest her presentations about the election actually are.
Bash first asked why Lake keeps claiming the election was stolen.
“Well, there’s plenty of evidence,” Lake responded. “We had 740,000 ballots with no chain of custody. Those ballots shouldn’t have been counted.”
That claim comes from a report by one of myriad right-wing “election integrity” groups that stepped up to meet the demand for fraud conspiracies in the wake of the 2020 election. It’s centered on the state’s Maricopa County, where officials acknowledge that a fifth of the forms documenting the transfer of drop-box ballots had incomplete information, including missing signatures. The county estimates that maybe as many as 200,000 votes were transferred without full documentation.
But step back for a moment. That’s not evidence of fraud; it’s evidence of clumsy management. There’s no evidence that there were 200,000 fraudulent votes and, in fact, the vote has been audited more than once without any significant questions being raised. Yet not only does Lake offer an indefensibly high number of affected ballots, she claims that all of those ballots — more than a third of those cast in the county! — should simply be tossed out. Because she isn’t trying to protect voter intent; she’s trying to protect her rhetoric. And because she knows that her side has invested a lot of energy in promoting the idea that drop boxes are suspect, though there’s no good reason to think that.
How long did it take you to read those two paragraphs? Less time than it took for me to evaluate the claim, I assure you. And far longer than it took Lake to make the claim live on air to CNN’s viewers. That’s the advantage Lake is leveraging: Make a false claim and let the camera keep running — and viewers have no chance to catch up.
Bash tried, dismissing the claim as debunked. But now it’s she said-she said, and Lake already pivoted.
“The real issue, Dana, is that the people don’t trust our elections,” Lake said. “They haven’t since 2000.” This was the introduction to a bit of whataboutism, attempting to equate Democrats’ past questions about close races with the right’s relentless effort to cast elections as suspect to appeal to or benefit from Donald Trump and his base of support.
Bash did come back to the fraud claims, showing Lake a series of Trump administration officials who rejected fraud claims. Why didn’t Lake side with them?
“I’m looking at what’s happening in Maricopa County,” Lake said. “And you know what? Let’s look at the 2022 election of August 2, where, one hour into Election Day, because of my opponent Katie Hobbs’s incompetence, we ran out of ballots one hour into Election Day in one of our largest counties, Pinal County.”
This is an important part of Lake’s rhetoric. She’s doubly incentivized to make false fraud claims: Doing so cements support from the political right, and it’s a point of criticism for her opponent, the Democrat serving as secretary of state. Bash noted that the Pinal County situation happened but didn’t push back on Lake’s claim that only Republican ballots were affected.
Bash also didn’t have time to note that the problem stemmed in part from a new elections administrator leading an understaffed office or that Republican officials in the county also accepted blame for the mistake. Nor was it noted that the state doesn’t administer county elections or that a mistake in 2022 bears literally no relation to a vote in 2020 unless you’re simply trying to elevate concerns about election security for your own political benefit.
Bash did press Lake on that point, though.
“If leaders like you and President Trump are saying that the election was stolen,” Bash asked the candidate, “aren’t you participating, contributing, even causing the idea of people thinking that the election is not safe and secure?”
The answer, of course, is yes. It’s not up for debate. But Lake did not say yes.
“No,” Lake said. “We are going to make sure our elections are safe and secure for Democrats, independents and Republicans alike. We want to know that our legal vote counted.”
Arizonans and Americans generally can be confident of that. That’s not even the issue, right? The purported issue is voter fraud, not having votes counted.
But it makes sense in the flow of the conversation, as does the awkward, unnecessary inclusion of the word “legal” there, which makes no sense when you stop and consider it as an argument. It’s simply there because Lake is arguing that votes are suspect and some are illegal and she would never undermine elections, God forbid, and she simply wants to defend the voters and Hobbs doesn’t and she’s in this soft light and she, too, is a journalist being honest and warm with the voters of Arizona.
It is, as the kids say, a vibe. And then you strip out the lighting and the practiced intonations and the limitations of speaking in real time, and you see it for what it really is.
And you consider what it means that Lake didn’t say she would accept the results of this election, either.