Attacking fact checking, and the big election lie emergency
by Rob Tiller
I’d planned to head to eastern NC this week to look for black bears and other creatures. Unfortunately, in Raleigh and elsewhere, there was a gas shortage. For a few hours, drivers and cars waited in long lines to get into stations, and then, the lines disappeared, and all the stations that I checked were out of gas.
The primary cause was a criminal hack of a major fuel pipeline company, with a secondary cause of a mass freak out (panic buying). People will probably calm down eventually. In the meantime, anyone taking a long road trip faced a good chance of getting stranded without gas, and so I sadly put off the bears. These pictures are ones I took recently at Jordan Lake and Raulston Arboretum
I’d been looking forward to taking a break from the subject of Trump, elections, and democracy. For a couple of weeks, it looked like we were heading towards normal, still with big problems, but having avoided a crash into full-on fascism. Right now we’ve got a full plate of wars, diseases, and other miseries, and it would be good not to add to the to-do list. So I’m sorry. But this is an emergency: our democracy is in a crisis.
Before I get to the crisis, a related development: this week a state legislator in Michigan proposed a new law aimed at fact checkers. As a former professional fact checker, I wondered what was up. According to the Washington Post, the legislator in question was a supporter of “Stop the Steal” and opponent of Covid safety measures. He proposed that fact checkers be required to register with the state, post a million dollar bond, and face fines and lawsuits for their mistakes.
As an ex-lawyer, I’m pretty confident that such a law would be struck down as unconstitutional, as long as we have anything resembling our current constitutional system. But the proposed law is one more indication of the fragility of that system.
It’s been four decades since I worked as a fact checker at The New Yorker, and through the years it never occurred to me that the government might try to put the lid on fact checking. I assumed that almost everyone would prefer to have truthful, reliable information, as opposed to mistakes or lies. Even though right-wing propaganda networks regularly play fast and loose with facts, the idea of making it a crime to try to get the facts right is something new.
Here’s fact checking in a nutshell: the job of the checker is to figure out whether statements purporting to be factual are accurate. Sometimes this is straightforward, as with correctly spelling names and confirming addresses, but other times it requires more research and analysis. On issues requiring expertise or first-hand knowledge, it requires consulting reliable experts or sources. It requires judgment when, as happens, experts or sources disagree. In such cases, the checker may add a note that there’s a disagreement.
Like all humans, fact checkers sometimes make mistakes. In such cases, they may be reprimanded, fired, or, in cases of libel, sued. So the proposed Michigan law would seem pointless, if the point were to punish mistakes. It makes sense, though, if the aim is to clear the way for big lies by discouraging checking. For those whose careers depend on lies, facts are pesky things.
And so we come to the crisis. This week Republican Congresswoman Liz Cheney was tossed out of the Republican leadership because she called out the big lie that Trump won the 2020 election and was denied the presidency because of fraud.
This action resembled Republicans’ refusal to impeach Trump, but it was actually worse. It’s the difference between quietly tolerating a lie and loudly shutting down those that oppose the lie. Instead of merely declining to hold Trump accountable for the January 6 attempt to overthrow the election, the Republicans are now effectively co-signing his lies about the election and endorsing the January 6 insurrection.
In an almost-but-not-quite comic development, some congressional Republicans are now rechristening the mayhem of January 6 as a normal tourist visit unrelated to Trump and his supporters.
For any who have forgotten, Trump supporters waving MAGA flags and sporting MAGA paraphernalia stormed the Capitol, shouting death threats, and vandalizing the premises as they searched for fleeing legislators who’d been about to complete certification of the election of Biden. There were several deaths, dozens of injuries, and legislators and guards who feared for their lives.
Meanwhile, having narrowly lost the last election, Republicans in 30-some states are moving forward with new voting laws designed to reduce the number of Democratic voters. According to a new report in Mother Jones, this effort has been organized with military precision by a right-wing dark money outfit associated with the Heritage Foundation.
The quasi-clever cover story for these laws is that they are needed to address voter fears of election fraud. There could be such fears, but in fact, there is no significant election fraud problem. The fears are based on the outrageous lies propagated at high volume by Trump and his supporters in connection with their effort to overturn the last election.
Senate Bill 1 could put a stop to the worst of the state level election rigging, but that legislation is opposed by Senate Republicans and can’t advance as long as the filibuster stays in place. At the same time, state Republicans are getting rid of election officials who refused to go along with the Trump attempt to steal the 2020 election, and replacing them with Trump loyalists. That is, they’re putting in place election officials who appear committed to stealing elections when directed.
There are a lot of moving parts, but the direction is clear: the end of our traditional system of transferring power peacefully based on fair elections. Republicans are in the process of replacing it with a system in which elections are a sham used by the powerful to fool the gullible. Such systems have a long history, but only in countries that we would not call democratic, such as China, Russia, and North Korea. To put it plainly: Republican leaders are now working on a large-scale effort to undermine the foundation of American democracy.
There are, of course, some principled Republicans who oppose this effort, and others who haven’t yet heard what’s happening, but would not support it. But right now the Republican leaders at the national and state level are moving ahead to set up a system where only their candidates can win. For many rank-and-file Republicans, persuaded by decades of right-wing lies that Democrats are evil socialists and otherwise very scary, changing the system to keep out Democrats may seem like a good idea.
Possibly the Trump fever will break, and those with the illness will revert to traditional support for fair elections and facts over lies. But I wouldn’t count on it. It’s more likely that our democratic experiment will only survive if we fight for it (non-violently, of course). We could start by junking the filibuster and moving ahead with Senate Bill 1.