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WITF focuses election-fraud lie accountability policy on lawmakers in key areas involving democracy

  • Scott Blanchard/WITF
Communications about presidential pardons are displayed he House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol continues to reveal its findings of a year-long investigation, Thursday, June 23, 2022, at the Capitol in Washington.

 Mandel Ngan / Pool via AP

Communications about presidential pardons are displayed he House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol continues to reveal its findings of a year-long investigation, Thursday, June 23, 2022, at the Capitol in Washington.

For more than two years, WITF has held accountable Pennsylvania state legislators and congressmen who, after the 2020 election, took actions to support the election-fraud lie.

We’re making a change to that policy. Here’s what we’re doing, and why.

Up to now, whenever we aired or published any story that quotes a lawmaker on the accountability list, we’ve included language noting that they took one of four actions: 

  • signed on to a U.S. Supreme Court case, filed by the Texas Attorney General, that would have invalidated Pennsylvania’s legally certified presidential votes; 
  • signed a letter asking Congress to delay Pa.’s votes;
  • signed a letter asking Congress to reject Pa.’s votes; or
  • voted against certifying the state’s votes.

Going forward, we’ll use that language only on stories that are about elections, voting or democracy. 

As we head toward the 2024 presidential campaign season, we think this change concentrates accountability where it matters most: The lawmakers whose actions supported former President Trump’s efforts to retain power despite losing, and who are now in leadership positions, are directly involved with election-related issues and/or are central figures in the investigations into who’s responsible for the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol attack. 

Our original policy, which debuted just weeks after that assault, represented a stand for facts against disinformation. That was important, we wrote at the time, partly because “many who attacked” the Capitol “have said their goal was to overthrow the U.S. electoral system and government.”

By January 2021, a clear fact pattern had emerged: 

Trump began lying about a rigged election as early as the summer of 2020 and continued through the election itself; Trump tried to claim victory on election night despite knowing that all ballots had not been counted; those lies prompted his supporters to question election results, despite no evidence to call them into question; Trump’s campaign or its allies filed numerous lawsuits in Pa. and elsewhere touting baseless claims and seeking to throw out legally certified votes; many elected officials in Pa. who were Trump’s political allies acted to amplify the election-fraud lie. 

All of that led to the Jan. 6 attack. Among states, Pennsylvania has the third-most people who were charged.

Since then, that fact pattern has been confirmed and deepened by the Jan. 6 Select Committee’s investigation and testimony from many Trump-administration officials; by criminal convictions of people who attacked the Capitol, including convictions for seditious conspiracy against the United States; and by reports including one by a prominent group of Republicans who established no fraud in the 2020 election, as well as the recent revelation that Trump’s campaign paid researchers to prove his false claims of fraud … and the report was never released, because the researchers determined there was no fraud. 

In addition, a post-mortem by Trump’s campaign details why he lost, and says Biden had big margins among voters whose top issue was COVID-19, and those who rated him more honest and trustworthy. Fraud or irregularities are not mentioned in the report. 

Yet in Pennsylvania, the election-fraud lie remains alive, pushed by elected officials who know the same things you and I know: That the 2020 election was free, fair and secure, and that the results were accurate. 

We had hoped that by now, we could sunset this policy, because lawmakers would have acknowledged the facts and that their actions supported a lie that led to the first disruption of the peaceful transfer of power in American history. And we would have revisited the policy had Trump decided not to run for president again. 

But Trump is running and still lying about a rigged election. And many Pennsylvania Republican lawmakers are still supporting that lie. 

via Twitter

In this screengrab posted by an online account that’s been identifying people present at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, state Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-Adams), highlighted in a yellow box, appears to walk with a group of demonstrators parallel to the east steps of the Capitol building.

They include State Sen. Doug Mastriano, who made the lie part of his campaign for governor. State Sen. Cris Dush, head of the State Government Committee, told a committee member that “no one has been charged with insurrection” – while true in the legal-definition sense, multiple people have been charged with and convicted of seditious conspiracy. And text messages reveal Rep. Scott Perry played a key role in connecting Trump to a Justice Department lawyer who was willing to promote the lie that DOJ had discovered “significant concerns” with the 2020 election. 

They are three of the 76 lawmakers who took one of the four actions that landed them on our accountability list. After the recent midterms, 60 remain. Several are in Senate leadership: Kim Ward, Joe Pittman, Ryan Aument, Kristin Phillips-Hill, Camera Bartolotta and Scott Martin.  

That’s why WITF believes it’s important to keep holding accountable lawmakers who could have influence over how Pennsylvania runs its elections. We know that repetition of disinformation is one way to convince people that something false is true. We believe repetition of the facts is one key to countering disinformation and reminding people of what is true.

Our accountability policy has received tremendous support from people across the U.S. and overseas. They’ve thanked us for standing up for facts and for American democracy. We’ve also heard criticism that a news organization shouldn’t take a stand like this – that it’s crossing the line into opinion or advocacy. 

When Morning Edition host and special projects editor Tim Lambert and I crafted the policy, we knew it was a step few other news organizations were taking or would take. Those other organizations might stick to tradition: Report both sides and let readers or listeners figure out what’s true. They might think they can’t take a step like we did if they serve a mostly politically conservative area. They might worry people will say they’re in the Democratic party’s pocket.

We considered all that. We believe politicians have used the journalistic tradition of reporting both sides to advance the election-fraud lie. Central Pennsylvania is a mostly politically conservative area, and we believe our listeners and readers deserve to know the difference between facts and disinformation. And we are fiercely independent of any political party. 

But most of all, we believe that, at a critical moment in American history, when the very system that allows us to settle our political differences at the ballot box was under attack by Trump’s effort to remain in power, we had to act. We had to stand up for facts. For democracy. 

We did.

And we still are.

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