Officially, the theme of this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) is “America Uncanceled,” though a more honest theme would probably be “Lying About The 2020 Election.” From the seven “Protecting Elections” panels and speeches starting Friday morning to former President Donald Trump’s closing keynote speech on Sunday, it’s a safe bet that CPAC attendees will be hearing quite a few conspiracy theories about the results of November’s election.
The annual event is hosted by the American Conservative Union (ACU), and will be held this year from February 25-28 in Orlando, Florida. The group’s chairperson, Matt Schlapp, is a loyal Trump supporter and one of the most prominent purveyors of 2020 election disinformation. As recently as February 12, more than a full month after lies about voter fraud sparked a deadly attempt to prevent Congress from making President Joe Biden’s win official, Schlapp tweeted the completely baseless allegation that “there was widespread illegal voting” in the election.
None of this should come as much of a surprise, as Schlapp was famously part of the so-called “Brooks Brothers Riot” in 2000, in which an astroturf group of Republican activists descended upon an election precinct to physically prevent ballots from being counted.
CPAC will be a multi-day deluge of election lies, and journalists need to make responsible editorial decisions.
Biden won the election. There was no evidence of widespread fraud. More than 60 lawsuits filed by Trump and his allies were thrown out, with some lacking legal standing and others lacking proof. There’s no legitimate dispute on this subject, and yet you’ll hear otherwise at CPAC.
Friday’s first “Protecting Elections” event -- “Voting is Democracy: Why We Must Protect Elections” -- will feature Deroy Murdock, a Fox News contributor who spent the run-up to the election claiming that Trump was right about his repeated claims that mail-in ballots would be fraudulent. In an August opinion piece for Fox News, Murdock highlighted a Heritage Foundation database of voter fraud convictions. The argument was sad and insincere, however, as even by Murdock’s own admission, the most convictions for “Fraudulent Use of Absentee Ballots” in a single year was 23 in 2010. Few would argue that voter fraud doesn’t exist at all (in fact, there were a few instances in 2020 -- from Trump voters), but anyone arguing that it happens on such a scale that it would affect the outcome of elections is simply lying.
After the election, Murdock went to work scaremongering about voter fraud in an effort to invalidate Biden’s clear victory. “Trump fans, take heart! We’re lawyered up. It ain’t over. Four more years!” he wrote.
The second portion of the “Protecting Elections” program is “Other Culprits: Why Judges & Media Refused to Look at the Evidence.” This one features Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL), who voted to overturn the election and was a speaker at Trump’s pre-insurrection rally on January 6. “Stop the Steal” organizer Ali Alexander claimed in January that Brooks, along with Reps. Andy Biggs (R-AZ) and Paul Gosar (R-AZ), “schemed up of putting maximum pressure on Congress while they were voting.” On its face, the claim that the judicial system and the press “refused to look at the evidence” is flat-out false. There simply was no compelling evidence.
Fox News contributor and former Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) will feature in the third part in this series, titled “The Left Pulled the Strings, Covered It Up, and Even Admits It.” It’s not entirely clear what this is referring to, but likely has something to do with a recent conspiracy theory based on a Time magazine February 5 article about “the secret history of the shadow campaign that saved the 2020 election.” The article is about efforts to prevent “an autocratically inclined president” from demolishing the democratic process. There is no indication that it was an attempt to rig the election in Biden’s favor, yet that’s been the way some on the right have been misrepresenting it. For his part, Chaffetz has helped spread pro-Trump conspiracy theories about the election.
Fox's Jason Chaffetz falsely suggests that Trump already won re-election: “The president is up nearly 700,000 votes in Pennsylvania! You can't statistically go back and tell me that that thing is still really in play. How are they going to go get 700,000 additional votes?” pic.twitter.com/BhqfmlY2cU
— Bobby Lewis (@revrrlewis) November 4, 2020
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) is slated to speak that afternoon, though CPAC’s agenda doesn’t specify what he’ll be talking about. The next morning, former Ambassador Ric Grenell will deliver opening remarks for the day. Both Hawley and Grenell have promoted conspiracy theories about the election, and it certainly doesn’t seem outside the realm of the possibility that they would continue to push this lie. Hawley raised a fist in support of the January 6 insurrectionists before they stormed the Capitol, and later that day he voted to overturn the election results.
On Saturday evening, CPAC will host a panel called “The Voter Files: The Truth is Out There: Ask Your Questions to the Election Lawyers.” The lawyers featured are Heather Flick and Charlie Spies. Spies was the attorney for John James, a Republican from Michigan who refused to concede his race for Senate despite losing by more than 92,000 votes. The discussion will be moderated by Marci McCarthy, a Georgia Republican and vice chair of the DeKalb County Republican Party. McCarthy unsuccessfully tried to have thousands of votes in the 2020 election thrown out.
On Sunday morning, CPAC will host parts four through seven of the “Protecting Elections” series. Part four is called “Failed States (PA, GA, NV, oh my!)” and will feature Rep. Mike Kelly (R-PA), Tea Party Patriots co-founder Jenny Beth Martin, pro-Trump filmmaker Amanda Milius, and Cleta Mitchell, a right-wing lawyer who was on Trump’s infamous phone call in which he tried to strongarm Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” votes for him. Kelly is the member of Congress who filed a lawsuit against his own state to have votes thrown out, and Martin has been a major proponent of the farcical “Stop the Steal” movement.
Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton, who has baselessly referred to mail-in ballots as “a menace to free and fair elections,” will also address the conference. Fitton and Judicial Watch have a long history of spreading misinformation about voter fraud.
Part five of the “Protecting Elections” series, “They Told Ya So: The Signs Were Always There,” will feature the National Review’s John Fund and the Heritage Foundation’s Hans von Spakovsky, who have both made a career out of flimsy claims and fearmongering about voter fraud.
Part six is titled “Successful states,” and features Republican National Committee co-chair and Trump “ultimate loyalist” Tommy Hicks Jr., as well as former acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker and Michael Whatley of the North Carolina Republican Party.
Finally, part seven will conclude with “Pandora’s Ballot Box: What’s Next,” featuring Fund, former head of the Environmental Protection Agency Andrew Wheeler, as well as Denis Cohen and Charlie Gerow of the ACU.
Journalists must not uncritically amplify misinformation, and they should highlight in their reporting when a claim is false.
For better or worse, CPAC gets an outsized amount of coverage by mainstream news organizations despite being the Mos Eisley Cantina of political conventions. Last year featured The Blaze’s Glenn Beck’s paranoid and offensive claims that Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) run for president could cause “another Holocaust,” as well as Trump economic advisor Larry Kudlow’s dismissal of the novel coronavirus as a serious threat.
In 2019, Schlapp used the conference to promote nationalism, Fox News host Laura Ingraham delivered scathing comments against transgender people, and a number of speakers spread bizarre false claims about Democratic support for infanticide. CPAC hosted far-right French politician Marion Maréchal-Le Pen in 2018, and 2017’s lineup included the likes of former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, former National Rifle Association spokesperson Dana Loesch, right-wing pundit Todd Starnes, and anti-Muslim hate group leader Frank Gaffney.
Setting aside that this year’s conference will likely be an onslaught of dangerous election disinformation, CPAC has never been the type of place where it makes sense for journalists to live tweet speeches as they’re being delivered. A lot of the time, live tweets end up functioning as megaphones for false statements.
This was a persistent problem throughout the Trump era. In 2019, Media Matters monitored the Twitter feeds of 32 mainstream news organizations. Over the course of the three-week study, there were an average of 19 false or misleading Trump statements being tweeted out by these groups per day. Most people don’t click through to an article, so unless it’s made abundantly clear that what is being said is false, audiences are likely to see what’s being said and assume that it’s true. This is always important to remember, but when it comes to pushing back on lies about election fraud, it’s even more crucial.
Similarly, television outlets shouldn't hand over a bunch of airtime to CPAC speakers spreading dangerous lies about the 2020 election -- particularly the former president.
Yes, it makes sense that journalists will cover CPAC, as they should if something newsworthy happens. What journalists must avoid, however, is becoming amplifiers for propaganda. The list of speakers at CPAC is loaded with people who have spread harmful, democracy-weakening lies. This conference should be described for what it is: a gathering of people largely dedicated to the propagation of a deadly lie that got people killed. “Protecting elections” is little more than a code for rigging elections in their favor. We are at this point in history because these people have been given free rein to lie about mass voter fraud without paying a political, professional, or societal price. If the press is to be part of our democracy, as it must be, then it’s time to start holding politicians and pundits accountable for what they say.