WaPo on debunked claim of English-only chant: “neither side quite right”

Lifelong civil rights activist and Hillary Clinton supporter Dolores Huerta

Lifelong civil rights activist and Hillary Clinton supporter Dolores Huerta

On Saturday night, after Hillary Clinton won the Nevada Democratic caucuses, civil rights activist Delores Huerta tweeted that she offered to translate during an event at Harrah’s casino but was shouted down by Sanders supporters who chanted “English only.” It was an alarming claim, repeated by actress America Ferrera and then reported by CNN and the Washington Post. Fortunately, it didn’t really happen. Actress Susan Sarandon, of all people, posted an unedited, hourlong video of the event that showed no such chant when Huerta took the stage. Several eyewitnesses disputed Huerta’s claim, and in a subsequent account she said that Sanders supporters merely booed and offered a Spanish translator of their own, at which point the moderator opted to go ahead without translation. Snopes has rated the report false. The Washington Post, on the other hand, has updated its account to say that “neither side was quite right.” The CNN story is still up, uncorrected.

Professional journalists should do better. When this claim emerged, it came from only two sources, both of whom attended the event to stump for Hillary. Huerta took the stage wearing a Hillary t-shirt. The question of how she knew the people chanting were Bernie supporters—were they wearing t-shirts too?—and not unaffiliated racists went completely unasked. She deserves respect for her decades of work for Latino rights, but the rule against single-source stories is Journalism 101. It is especially important when your single source has publicly endorsed one candidate against the other.

Presumably, the moderator of the Harrah’s casino caucus event was a known person with contact information who could be reached through the Nevada Democratic Party. Literally everyone who participated in the caucus also provided contact information. Instead of contacting any of these hundreds of eyewitnesses to confirm this shocking story, CNN and WaPo just ran with it. It took a celebrity who happened to post a video from her phone to confirm it wasn’t true.

That’s a big, public failure of journalism. At best, it suggests news outlets have embraced the narrative of hyper-aggressive “Bernie bros” with unprofessional credulity. At worst, it makes them look like they are in the tank for Hillary. Yet even after their reports of events have been proven factually inaccurate—no one chanted “English only” at Harrah’s—they haven’t really corrected them.

The Washington Post insists that “neither side was quite right” in the story, as if its inaccurate reporting of facts were somehow a dispute between the campaigns. Here’s how Janell Ross analyzes the news that what Huerta and Ferrera said happened did not actually happen:

There were allegations of media bias and of deliberate attempts by the Clinton campaign and/or its supporters to besmirch the liberal credentials of Sanders voters or cast them as frothy-mouthed racists…This video really does not prove Huerta was guilty of the bias alleged by Sanders supporters; it’s easy to see why she felt abused and upset after being shouted off the stage. Nor does it completely clear the Sanders supporters of all the allegations against them; some of the comments that are clearly audible in it amount to more than bad public behavior.

Although this video does not prove that “Huerta was guilty of the bias alleged by Sanders supporters,” it does prove that her report of events was not true. She didn’t tweet that she felt abused by Sanders supporters when she took the stage; she tweeted that Sanders supporters chanted “English only.” No one did that. It doesn’t mean she’s a liar; it just means she was wrong. Human memory is inaccurate, which is why you don’t run a news story based on a single source.

Ross’s analysis pretends that the report of events (that turned out not to have happened) wasn’t the story. The real story, she implies, is that Sanders supporters were too aggressive in challenging Huerta’s claim. They “set the progressive internet on fire,” whatever that means, “in many cases using the very language that had given rise to the idea that some Sanders voters are rowdy to outright rude.” In other words, although this report of Sanders supporters chanting “English only” was not true, their response to it shows they are the kind of people who would do that.

The article does not link to any examples of that response. Having acknowledged that its story based on a single, explicitly biased source was not accurate, the Washington Post advances a defense of its reporting based on no sources at all. That’s not objective. It’s borderline unethical. It would have been very bad if Sanders supporters or anyone else chanted “English only” at Dolores Huerta, but no one did. It’s not true in spirit. It’s not a disagreement in which neither side is quite right. It’s not true at all.

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  1. You’re well to point this out, I suppose. But ten years from now I think it will be very weird to dispute issues of fact in media reporting. It’s already weird to learn from a blog, on Monday, about a publication writing about the reaction to outrage over a Saturday night tweet. As the distance between these events becomes infinitely small, our thoughts about them become lived experience and the boundary between authoritative outlets, who should write the facts and confirm them before making them public, and people just sayin’ stuff disappears. It’s hard to imagine in 10 years people will put any stake in the factuality of news sites. Their function as aggregators of opinion and clickbait will remove them from consideration as arbitrators of fact. And with that removal, so will we lose the blogpost which call for a more ethical media, just like we lost the letter to the editor complaining about automobiles spooking our horse carriages. The future of facts is vines getting likes on Facebook. All the way down.

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