By Bradley J. Fikes
On May 3, the San Diego City Council passed a resolution condemning Arizona’s new illegal immigration law and asking for its repeal. Shortly thereafter, news stories and blog posts popped up falsely stating that San Diego had joined a boycott of Arizona.
Based on these erroneous reports, Brett Scott, of Gilbert, Arizona, began a list of cities to reverse-boycott, with San Diego first on the list. Scott has now taken San Diego off the list, after learning from me that the city council didn’t actually call for a boycott. Here’s my story on it.
San Diego reverse boycott dropped - Click to read clarification
Scott was properly mortified, and explained to me that he saw a vast difference between criticizing the law and a boycott. It’s only the latter that makes him want to fight back with a reverse boycott. He said to me:
“The site was put there simply to take those people who have declared economic war against Arizona, and say, if you’re going to be that way, and attack Arizona economically, then we’re going to respond. In other words, right back at you. If someone disagrees with us, then we’re back in the world of debate. And that is what this country’s all about, free speech and debate. So, whereas I disagree with the council’s resolution — I think it’s none of their business — I completely support their right to say so, and even do so. I think it’s silly, but that’s well within their purview.”
I had inadvertently stumbled into a classic story of how bad journalism goes viral. Scott and people working with him had found multiple stories falsely stating that the San Diego City Council had voted to boycott Arizona. He trusted the reporters to get it right, especially since more than one of them said the same thing. Scott made it very clear to me that he only wanted to boycott those actually boycotting Arizona, not just those who opposed the law.
But the reporters simply didn’t check their information. I don’t know who was the first to say San Diego was boycotting, but I can make a pretty informed guess as to how it got started.
The story was originally told correctly by the San Diego Union-Tribune, other local media, and the Associated Press.
What actually happened
But because the story fit the template of a backlash against Arizona, reporters and bloggers elsewhere folded in the San Diego City Council’s condemnation into the larger picture. In the process, they failed to distinguish between a vote to condemn the law, and an actual economic boycott. So Brett Scott got fooled by sloppy media coverage.
The Union-Tribune’s record isn’t faultless. Unclear language in the lead of one story seemed to imply San Diego was boycotting Arizona.
San Diego tourism leaders and hoteliers fear they could lose a sizable chunk of business this summer from valued “Zonies” who are so angered by elected leaders’ recent censure of Arizona for its illegal-immigration law that they’re mounting an informal boycott of their own.
To be fair, the subhed for the story said the outrage may be a “misunderstanding,” and a bit more explanation was given deeper in the story. But casual readers (who are most readers) could easily have just looked at the lead, saw the word “boycott” and concluded that San Diego was part of the boycott. The word “informal” in front of boycott didn’t make that clear.
Four days later, a story on the Web site of WHBL radio in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, drew that erroneous conclusion from the Union-Tribune article.
WHBL says San Diego council boycotted Arizona
The WHBL post stated:
San Diego Boycott of Arizona Backfires
Tuesday May 18, 2010 Posted 5 days, 13 hours ago by Kelly Meyer
According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, Arizona residents are giving the city of San Diego a taste of its own medicine for its city council’s decision to boycott Arizona over its illegal immigration law. . . .
So now tourism officials appear to be in panic mode, urging Arizonans to consider the resolutions as merely symbolic and local politics at work. . .
Perhaps the city of San Diego should’ve thought of the hardworking men and women of Arizona and the impact a boycott would have on their livelihoods before deciding to take the action they did.
So an unclear lead in the Union-Tribune morphed into a flatly false post at a radio station in Wisconsin. This illustrates that often, the further away from the epicenter of a news event, the more inaccurate the coverage becomes. Reporters copy each other, including each others’ mistakes. Due diligence would include going back to the San Diego City Council to find out exactly what they did, or at least reading the local news reports.
Over at Fox News, Judson Berger repeated the same falsehood.
“Boycotts work,” Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said last month when he announced his support for his city’s proposed ban on Arizona. The City Council passed the measure last week.
Other California cities, including San Diego and San Francisco, have gone the same route. The Seattle City Council approved a similar boycott Monday.
And here’s another Faux News (sorry, in this case it’s justified), story making the same false claim about a San Diego boycott.
False claim of San Diego City Council boycott of Arizona
The ‘threat’ to LA that wasn’t – more media botchery
By the way, Judson Berger also botched a description of an offer from an Arizona power commissioner to renegotiate contracts supplying Los Angeles with electricity. The letter from Gary Pierce was a “put up or shut up” offer — if you really want to boycott Arizona, we’d be happy to let you cancel those contracts.
Berger called Pierce’s letter a threat to unilaterally cut off power:
Noting that a quarter of Los Angeles’ electricity comes from Arizona power plants, Pierce threatened to pull the plug if the City Council does not reconsider.
Fox News falsely says AZ official threatens to cut off power
The letter, which Berger’s article linked to, stated:
“If an economic boycott is truly what you desire, I will be happy to encourage Arizona utilities to renegotiate your power agreements so Los Angeles no longer receives any power from Arizona-based generation.”
So into Berger’s brain goes a statement from Pierce that he’d encourage utilities to “renegotiate” agreements — and out of it comes a story saying Pierce “threatened” to cut off power.
Shelby Grad at the LA Times wrote a similarly inaccurate blog post about Pierce’s letter.
Gary Pierce, a member of the Arizona Corporate Commission, sent a letter to L.A. officials Tuesday discussing the possibility that Arizona cut power to L.A. from generators in that state. It’s unclear whether Pierce’s suggestion has any support from other members of the commission — or whether such a cutoff is legally allowed.
LA Times Gets It Wrong
The UK Guardian also distorted the story. As with most of the stories, the quotes from Pierce don’t match the claims.
Listen to a MP3 clip (1.5 MB) of a great rant by John Kobylt & Ken Chiampou about the wretchedly inaccurate local news coverage of Gary Pierce’s letter to LA, lightly edited for time and clarity. Unlike most of the reporters who wrote on this, they actually interviewed Gary Pierce — twice. The link to the full 8 MB MP3podcast where this is discussed is here. The rant begins about 20 minutes into the 36-minute podcast.
And here is a brief MP3 clip of Gary Pierce saying he can’t cut off power without LA’s consent. This is from the May 18 John & Ken Show. You can listen to the whole program, an 8 MB MP3 download, here. The segment starts at 9:00 of the 34-minute podcast.
Back to San Diego
Newsweek also screwed up the facts.
Earlier this week, student activists staged a sit-in at Sen. John McCain’s Tucson office to condemn his support of the law. City leaders (not all of them Latino) from San Diego to St. Paul, Minn., declared boycotts against Arizona.
Over at the Orange County Register, Jay Ambrose repeated the San Diego boycott falsehood.
Let’s boycott the boycotters. As a nation, let’s rise up and say, yes, at every opportunity we will vacation in and visit Arizona, we will order products from Arizona, we will do business with Arizona, but then say no: We will not set foot in or buy anything from San Francisco, San Diego, Oakland, Los Angeles, Austin, Boulder, Boston or any other city whose leaders announce a boycott of Arizona.
But it wasn’t just the national media. A local news source also egregiously screwed up. San Diego 6 wrote on May 19:
BERKELEY, Calif. — Berkeley has become the latest California city to join San Diego in boycotting Arizona in response to the state’s new law targeting illegal immigration.
The City Council voted unanimously on Tuesday to restrict Berkeley city staff from traveling to the state on city business.
San Diego 6 Says San Diego Boycotts Arizona
Interestingly enough, this turns out to be an Associated Press story, that didn’t mention San Diego when run elsewhere.
In the Mercury News, the lead said:
BERKELEY, Calif.—Berkeley has become the latest California city to boycott Arizona in response to the state’s new law targeting illegal immigration.
There is no mention of San Diego at all in this story. My guess is that some editor at San Diego 6 inserted the reference to San Diego to localize the AP story.
And the San Diego Reader ran a short article by stringer Ken Harrison inaccurately lumping in the San Diego City Council with the San Diego Unified School District as boycotting Arizona.
On May 17, a male caller to Chip Franklin’s morning show on AM 600 claimed that the Hotel del Coronado was losing reservations from Arizona residents unhappy with the City of San Diego and the San Diego Unified School District’s boycott of Arizona due to their new immigration law.
Of course, journalists will make mistakes. We’re only human, and of course I have often made mistakes. But this level of erroneous reporting, in which a major fact is repeatedly botched, should warn readers, reporters, and editors, that standards have fallen way too low.
Others repeating the bogus San Diego boycott claim include the Prescott (Arizona) Daily Courier. the Pasadena Star-News, Canada Free Press, the Daily Californian student newspaper and yet another erroneous story from Fox News.
DISCLAIMER: This post represents my own opinion, and not necessarily that of my employer, the North County Times.