What voters know about Roy Moore and the allegations against him might depend a lot on where they live, at least when it comes to television.
Moore, the Alabama Senate candidate accused of pursuing relationships with underage girls when he was in his 30s, is facing off against Democrat Doug Jones for an open Senate seat Tuesday.
But voters who live in the Birmingham television market, the largest in Alabama, could’ve tuned in to every network television show in the past month and only watched 34 shows mention the words “Roy Moore” and “underage” in the same breath.
In fact, there’s about a 50 percent chance that voters in Alabama could’ve watched a show talk about Moore but not heard about his alleged sexual misconduct within the vicinity of his name.
Even if it was mentioned, it’s very possible there were no details of what Moore is accused of. Voters instead likely just heard the vague term “sexual misconduct.”
This is what we found when we analyzed transcripts from every television show from November 9 to December 11, looking at both nationwide coverage and the markets that cover just Alabama. There is a clear difference in how Moore has been talked about within the state versus in the nation as a whole — and it has only served to benefit Moore, who despite the allegations appears to have a good shot at winning a Senate seat.
Moore’s alleged transgressions are called “sexual misconduct” — and mentioned less in Alabama
The most common way news organizations have chosen to describe Moore’s alleged transgressions is that he engaged in “sexual misconduct.” Of all the shows that mentioned Moore’s name nationwide, about 65 percent of them used the word “sexual” shortly before or after mentioning the candidate’s name.
But in Alabama, when Moore’s name was mentioned, only half the shows even used the word “sexual” in its vicinity, and it’s not because they had a more specific way of describing the allegations:
Now keep in mind that much of what airs in local markets is national programs — morning shows like The View or late-night shows like Saturday Night Live. So that means the separation between Alabama and nationwide coverage comes largely from local stations. And this gap has grown in the weeks since the Washington Post first broke this story:
One possibility is that local stations don’t feel the need to rehash what Moore is being accused of since there has been so much news coverage around him.
But the problem with leaving it up to either implied context or vague terminology is that a huge portion of Alabama voters have bought into the conspiracy theory that these allegations are a liberal attempt to smear Moore. In fact, 71 percent of Republicans believe these allegations are fabricated. This might explain why so many are saying these allegations make it more likely they’ll vote for him:
In addition, there may be voters who start paying closer attention at the last minute, which leaves them trying to infer details.
This is why details matter so much. It builds the case for exactly what Moore is accused of doing and why we should believe the accusers.
But it appears more descriptive words have been much harder to come by, especially in Alabama.
This description doesn’t convey enough of what Moore is accused of doing
It’s important to describe concisely what Moore is accused of doing, which is pursuing and having multiple relationships with underage girls as an adult. (Moore has robustly and repeatedly denied the allegations, a point I’ll get into shortly.)
But it was quite rare both nationwide and in the Alabama markets to hear it described this way, at least in the vicinity of Moore’s name. In fact, most shows introduced Moore as someone being accused of “sexual misconduct,” and only later go into the details of what he is being accused of, if at all.
One of the most common ways to describe what Moore is accused of doing, outside of “sexual misconduct,” involved the word “girls,” though often not with the descriptor “underage.” In fact, this appears to be how many people in Alabama heard the allegations against Moore be described. Words like “child” or “teenager” were less common, especially in Alabama, and “molesting” was rare all around.
But Moore and his allies haven’t shied away from using more specific words. Instead, they’ve used them to chide people for allowing a good man to be called such nasty things, almost as evidence for how terrible the left is for making these things up about him.
Moore told the Voice of Alabama Politics in an interview:
I did not date underage women. I did not molest anyone and so these allegations are false. ... They know I stood for moral values, so they're attacking me in that area, and I understand that.
Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) said at a forum, which aired on local news channels:
I don't have to worry about anything else in this senate race, because today I voted for Roy Moore. That's it, I voted absentee. ... Now you claim that Judge Moore is a pedophile when you have absolutely no personal knowledge and you are just making that up.
Making Roy Moore a more comfortable choice
My colleague Brian Resnick was in Alabama this past weekend and wrote about the psychology behind how voters deal with the uncomfortable thought of voting for someone like Moore: “It’s like we have an immune system for uncomfortable thoughts. And you can see it working in real time, trying to sort out why a damning piece of evidence may not be so bad after all.”
Alabama voters tend to be an older group, which means they tend to get their news from television. And local news tends to be the most trusted form of TV news. So the way these outlets frame someone like Moore is especially important for people looking to find a way to find cognitive resolve and vote for him.
One of the ways news coverage has allowed these thoughts to be more palatable is the use of this vague, imprecise language. And even if we were to use precise and rigorous descriptions of the evidence, perhaps we would still lack the language to convey the proper weight of these actions. My colleague Constance Grady writes:
It’s not that we don’t have a vocabulary for talking about sexual violence, because we do. But that vocabulary is inadequate. It is confusing and flattening in ways that make it hard to talk about sexual violence without either trivializing it, obfuscating the systems that enable it, or getting so specific as to become salacious or triggering. So whenever I talk about sexual violence, I feel like I’m translating: taking the acts that actually happened and trying to cram them into the language that I have available to describe them.
The other way Moore becomes a more comfortable choice is by lumping him in with others who are facing allegations — Harvey Weinstein, Al Franken, and John Conyers, among others. We looked at transcripts of every TV show that covered Moore in the past month, and about 10 percent of them used Franken’s name within 25 words of Moore’s. The message is that Moore is one of many.
And that might be enough cover for Alabama voters to pull the lever for Moore. After all, one year ago they knowingly, and by a wide margin, elected one of these many men facing allegations to the highest office in the country.