Michigan Rep. Matt Maddock would like the State to register fact-checkers. Let me guess, he’s from the government and he’s here to help?
Last week, Michigan House Rep. Matt Maddock introduced a bill that would require some fact-checkers to register with the state and post a $1 million fidelity bond or face a fine of $1000 per day. Maddock, a Republican lawmaker from Michigan’s 44th district, claims that his legislation would keep journalists and other gatekeepers honest, granting “treble damages, costs, and reasonable attorney fees” to parties affected by bogus information passed off as facts by people paid to verify the truth. Critics point out that the bill clearly violates the First Amendment. Should the government register fact-checkers, and do we really want that much State control over journalistic media generally?
Michigan House Bill No. 4813 specifically aims to register fact-checkers who are members of the “International Fact Check Network” [sic]. Maddock later clarified that he meant the International Fact-Checking Network, an international group of media organizations affiliated with the Poynter Institute. The Network was established in 2015 to promote best practices among a growing field of fact-checkers, including the establishment of a non-partisan and transparent code of principles to which members must adhere.
Maddock told the Huffington Post that he wants to register fact-checkers because “people and businesses are being unfairly targeted and deplatformed and cancelled because fact checkers deem them ‘false.’” He’s concerned that there is a lack of accountability for “sloppy fact checkers like Snopes destroy lives, destroy business, destroy politicians and there is no penalty when they get it wrong,” but could not recall any particular examples of such a thing happening while speaking with HuffPo.
Currently, the legal remedy for untruthful fact-checkers is the same as for any individual or media outlet guilty of libel.
However, Maddock might have deeper, more ideological motives to register fact-checkers and subject them to government regulation in a way that might scare his party if it’s applied to their favorite media outlets. He was one of the Michigan Representatives interested in joining the Texas suit to overturn Biden’s win and claw back the state’s 16 Electoral College votes. On January 5th, the day before rioters pushed their way into the Capitol building, he was among those urging Mike Pence not to certify the election results. In addition to pushing the Big Lie, Maddock has also peddled misinformation about COVID-19 and initiated an unsuccessful effort to impeach Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer over the public health measures she put in place during the pandemic.
If Maddock can’t actually bomb media outlets he doesn’t like, he can certainly try to register fact-checkers and thereby make it onerous to fulfill their obligation to serve as the public’s watchdog. However, who watches the watchers? The GOP is in the midst of a blistering internal conflict, with people like Maddock purging the party of slightly more reality-based Republicans like Liz Cheney (canceling them, if you will). The Trump administration filled a massive number of judgeships before the White House door closed behind him in January. The idea that these are the people who could sit in judgment of any fact-checkers who made Maddock sad, deciding that the truth is something it’s not, is sobering.
Fortunately, it probably won’t happen (this time). Matt Maddock’s effort to register fact-checkers isn’t likely to go anywhere. However, it signals a dangerous direction in the Republican party, a group of people who have long suspected fact-checkers of political bias as the GOP narrative has drifted further from measurable fact. Truth is the first casualty in war, as they say, and for far too many Americans, reality is simply whichever story they prefer to believe.