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Holding liars accountable

By Amanda Marcotte
Tuesday, August 2, 2011 19:54 EDT
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If you're anything like me, you probably spend a lot of your time fretting because right wingers have grown incredibly bold about bald-faced lying, and so far it seems there's literally nothing that can be done about it.  We have extensive freedom of speech protections, which is a good thing of course, but leaves us with few options to stem the ever-growing tide of lies emanating from a right wing that knows that it can't make an honest argument.  The mainstream media has basically abandoned its mission to correct lies with the truth.  Some publications continue to fact check claims made by pundits, activists, and politicians, but it's just not enough to counter the endless stream of lies and misinformation coming from the right. That's why Fox News hates Media Matters so much—they have a machine-like approach to the lies, just debunking them in real time.  Media Matters can't get 'em all—that's a super-human feat—but they're the only people out there even approaching success with this.

Well, there is one door that is available, but not used especially often: lawsuits.  Part of that is that it's difficult to show damages with some of the lies that right wingers float, but not always.  Some lies are actionable.  Which is why I'm glad someone fought back against the aneurysm-causing lie that was in non-stop rotation during the health care debate, which is that health care reform somehow meant taxpayer-funded abortions.

A judge is allowing former Ohio congressman Steve Driehaus to sue the anti-choice Susan B. Anthony List for defamation, because as he sensibly pointed out, they were lying about whether abortion is "taxpayer-funded" under the Affordable Care Act.

The irony is that Driehaus is anti-choice. He did, however, vote for health insurance reform, which meant that SBA decided to run the above billboards against him. Despite the fact that abortion is never paid for by federal funds (except extremely limited cases of rape and incest victims on Medicaid) and the ACA didn't change the status quo, anti-choicers have been obsessed with insisting that it does by focusing on federal subsidies to private plans. In fact, after the fight over Stupak-Pitts and abortion nearly derailed the entire proceedings, pro-choicers were the ones wringing their hands over what Planned Parenthood called "unacceptable provisions on abortion." Those were the ones outlined in an executive order affirming the Hyde Amendment and emphasizing enforcement of existing separation of federal funds and abortion services.

Granted, in a perfect world, the guy who fights back wouldn't actually be a fellow misogynist, but I also suspect a defamation suit will be easier to prove when the victim of this particular lie is himself anti-choice.  It would be weird for a pro-choicer to sue because they were "defamed" by false claims that they did what they actually wished they could.  It'd be like me suing because people were out there spreading rumors that I slept with Jon Hamm.  On one hand, it is false.  On the other hand, the defense attorneys could argue that it was only because of lack of opportunity.

So, it's far from perfect.  I may still, should I meet Driehaus, ask him how he came to be a Democrat when he's such an asshole about women's basic rights.  But the SBA List was flagrantly violating election laws that require some kind of tentacle of truth to touch your claims, and they need to be held accountable for that.  I'll take it.  Anything that might put the fear of consequences into right wingers who believe their god has given them free moral license to lie whenever they damn well please. 

There's been a lot of attention paid, rightly, to the Citizens United decision and the role money plays in politics. I think we should also think long and hard about the impact that all this free-wheeling lying has on our discourse.  I honestly think it's just as toxic a problem as money.  You can spend and spend but if people aren't ready to hear what you're saying, it's hard to get through to them. But stoking paranoia throw shiny-sounding lies is pretty much free, and right wingers never leave that trough for it.  I bet you could clock the lies-per-minute rate on Fox News at around 2-3 per, easily.  A well-placed lie can do an amazing amount of damage, as was demonstrated by the "taxpayer funding for abortion" lie that nearly derailed health care reform.  What's frustrating is the Democrats, knowing that taxpayer funding for abortion is a toxic issue in the current political climate, didn't even consider putting it in, and it didn't matter.  Who cares what you do if you can't get credit for it because the opposition claims you're doing the opposite?  The media basically abandoned its duty to vigorously correct the lie, pulling a lot of that "both sides" crap.  Without a reasonable handle on what is actually true, we can't even begin to have real political discourse in this country.

Obviously, just suing the hell out of all the liars isn't an option for various reasons.  But I would like to see more well-placed lawsuits like this, hopefully causing groups like SBA List to slow their roll when they're thinking of lying again.  Of course, their very name is an act of dishonesty (they pretend Susan B. Anthony shared their view of women as ambulatory baby factories who don't deserve basic rights, which is kind of like saying MLK was pro-segregation), so it's possible they wouldn't know how to tell the truth if they ever vowed to start doing so. 

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
 
 
 
 
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