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How The Bundy Trial Hits America's Widening Information Divide

Nov 16, 2017
Originally published on November 16, 2017 6:45 am

The federal conspiracy trial against Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy is hitting right at the heart of the country's divide over information and truth.

Opening statements began this week in the case of Bundy's armed standoff with federal agents near his ranch in 2014. Bundy, his two sons and another militiaman are accused of assaulting federal officers when the government tried to remove Bundy's cows that were grazing on U.S. public land without permits.

This is one of the most important western public lands cases in modern history. It arrives at a political moment in which the integrity of many institutions is being called into question and when accusations of so-called "fake news" come from the highest levels, including the government itself.

Who escalated?

U.S. Attorney Steven Myhre told the jury that the Bundys pushed a false information campaign before the standoff, using social media to recruit militia to come to the ranch after claiming they were under attack by federal agents.

"This case is not about protesting," Myhre said. "This case is about violence and instilling fear [in law enforcement officers]."

Defense attorneys are hoping to flip that argument around and convince the jury that it was the federal government conspiring against the ranchers.

"From our point of view, the escalation has always been from the government," said Bret Whipple, attorney for Cliven Bundy.

The Bundys were early and savvy users of social media in rural America. It has helped them shift the story away from the court orders — and laws — Cliven Bundy is alleged to have violated and toward one of a defiant cowboy taking a stand against a tyrannical federal government.

This happened before the high-profile trial and has now become part of it.

"We're going to pray for a softness of heart from the jurors," Carol Bundy, Cliven's wife, said recently in a video posted to YouTube. "The truth will set us free, and the wonderful thing about truth, the beauty about truth is it's so easy to tell."

The idea of "truth" is expected to come up a lot in the Bundy trial. In the government's eyes, the Bundys' "truth" is a misinformation campaign.

"The narrative among Bundy supporters is that the government is not presenting the truth and it's very difficult to know that truth and therefore why should men be convicted on things we can't know," said Tay Wiles, associate editor at High Country News, a western environmental magazine.

Wiles says this dynamic puts even more pressure on the prosecution in the case.

"I think they're on their back foot a little bit in terms of trying to put the Bundys on trial instead of having their own institutions be on trial," she said.

Wiles is a regular in the courtroom alongside reporters from mainstream outlets like The Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal. But there are also some of the Bundy movement's early promoters: people from far-right Internet talk shows and conspiracy websites identifying themselves as media. Friends of the Bundys regularly livestream updates to their followers during breaks in the trial (no cameras or recorders are allowed in federal court).

The trial is expected to last into next year.

Two versions of the truth

Watching it all can seem like two parallel universes. Americans are getting their information about the trial from vastly different sources.

"He is standing and saying, 'No this isn't true,' " said Michael Stickler, defending Cliven Bundy outside the courthouse one afternoon.

Stickler is writing a biography about Bundy and his decades-long fight with the government. The two men met in jail recently, while Stickler was serving a federal prison term for tax fraud. Stickler says he quickly learned that Bundy is a man of conviction, believing so strongly that the government was overreaching he was willing to test federal law.

"There's a long tradition of Americans and even people outside of America who have stood, believed their convictions and stood against powerful forces," Stickler said.

Around the time of the standoff though, the Bundys frequently said they didn't recognize the federal government, let alone its legal right to control public land. A trove of TV news footage from the time shows militiamen pointing assault-style rifles at federal agents. Bundy's son Ammon, who is also on trial and was acquitted recently for organizing a similar standoff in Oregon, even told reporters their mission was to kick all federal agencies off the land.

"Where is the rule of law," says Erika Schumacher, a retired Bureau of Land Management law enforcement officer who led the federal response to the 2014 standoff on the ground.

Schumaker, who now teaches at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, says she is worried a jury could sympathize with the Bundys' version of the truth, even though she largely considers it a myth.

She says given how the standoff unfolded, she is "not surprised that we're here today, where nobody really understands the truth or really wants to get to the bottom of what the truth actually is."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It appears a signature political tactic of our time - if you're accused of something, accuse your accuser of the same thing. President Trump famously does this again and again. Accused by Hillary Clinton of being a Russian puppet, he replied - no puppet, you're the puppet. In Nevada, rancher Cliven Bundy is trying a similar defense. Testimony has begun over an armed standoff over control of public lands. Bundy is accused of conspiracy, and NPR's Kirk Siegler reports his defense accuses the government of conspiracy.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Cliven Bundy, his two sons and another militiaman are accused of assaulting federal officers when the government tried to remove Bundy's cows that we're grazing on U.S. public land without permits. But this is a family that has long used social media to spread their message, and it's helped them shift the story away from the laws Bundy is alleged to have broken and toward one of a cowboy taking a stand against a tyrannical federal government.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

CAROL BUNDY: We're going to pray for a softness of heart from the jurors.

SIEGLER: Here's Bundy's wife, Carol, speaking on YouTube recently from the family's ranch near Bunkerville, Nev.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

BUNDY: The truth will set us free. And the wonderful thing about truth, the beauty about truth is it's so easy to tell.

SIEGLER: The truth will come up a lot in her husband's trial, especially in this current moment in America where it seems like the integrity of every institution is being questioned and, accusations of so-called fake news come from the highest levels of even the government itself. In opening statements this week, the defense tried to capitalize on the deep mistrust in government to convince the jury these men were simply protesting. Sure, Bundy's attorneys said, some militia brought long guns to the standoff, but there were also women and children holding Bibles and flags. Tay Wiles is an editor with High Country News, which covers the environment in the West.

TAY WILES: The narrative among Bundy's supporters is that the government is not presenting the truth. And it's very difficult to know that truth. And therefore, why should men be convicted on things we can't know?

SIEGLER: Wiles says this dynamic puts even more pressure on prosecutors.

WILES: I think they're on their back foot a little bit in terms of trying to put the Bundys on trial instead of having their own institutions be on trial.

SIEGLER: Wiles is a regular in the courtroom alongside reporters from The Wall Street Journal, The LA Times. But there are also some of the Bundy movement's early promoters, people from far-right Internet talk shows and conspiracy websites who identify themselves as media. Some livestream updates to their followers during breaks. And watching it all, it seems like two parallel universes. Americans are getting their information from vastly different sources.

MICHAEL STICKLER: He is standing and saying, no, this isn't true.

SIEGLER: Michael Stickler is writing a biography about Cliven Bundy and his decades-long fight with the government. The two men met in jail actually. Stickler was serving a federal prison term for tax fraud.

STICKLER: There's a long tradition of Americans and even people outside of America who have stood, believed in their convictions and stood against powerful forces.

SIEGLER: Stickler says Bundy believed so strongly that the government was overreaching that he was willing to break the law. But at the time of the standoff, the Bundys would say things like they didn't even recognize the federal government, let alone its legal right to control public land. A trove of news footage showed militiamen pointing assault-style rifles at federal agents. And Bundy's son, Ammon, even told reporters their mission was to kick all federal agencies off the land.

ERIKA SCHUMACHER: Where is the rule of law?

SIEGLER: Erika Schumacher was in charge of federal law enforcement on the ground at the standoff. She's now retired and worries a jury will sympathize with the Bundys' version of the truth, even though she considers it a myth.

SCHUMACHER: My thought is, as I saw things unfold with Bundy, I'm not surprised that we're here today, where nobody really understands the truth or really wants to get to the bottom of what the truth actually is.

SIEGLER: The trial is expected to last into next year. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Las Vegas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.