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Huckster Propaganda: Voice of San Diego gets a taste of its own fact check

January 19, 2011 - 4:30 pm

Voiceofsandiego.org’s Fact Check Blog has become one of the non-profit news site’s signature features. Modeled after the St. Petersburg Times’ Pulitzer-winning PolitiFact.com, Fact Check evaluates claims, usually by politicians and policy makers, for accuracy and issues a determination of truth. At its strongest, the blog uncovers egregious misstatements. At its weakest, it nitpicks minor off-the-cuff factual errors and splits hairs of semantics.

This post mirrors the style of the Fact Check blog, minus the copyrighted Pinocchio image that goes with each determination.

Statement: “How about a public service news source that receives no government support? You found it.” —A solicitation on the homepage of voiceofsandiego.org, followed by a “Donate Now” button.

Determination: Huckster Propaganda

When we noticed this solicitation, we were confused. Was it a dig at PBS and NPR, which receive government subsidies through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting? Was it meant to appeal to conservatives who are crying out for the cessation of this kind of public endowment for media? What exactly was VoSD trying to achieve?

Whatever the case, after a few mouse clicks, it quickly became clear that the claim was false. Over the last five years, VoSD has received more than $28,000 from government agencies.

The first item that came to our attention was the Unified Port District of San Diego, which VoSD listed, quite openly, as a donor of between $500 and $999. Further surfing of VoSD‘s website turned up other government agencies listed as “community partners.” VoSD CEO Scott Lewis acknowledged that the site had received revenue from government agencies through advertising and sent us an itemized disclosure (detailed breakdown after the jump):

City of San Diego Independent Budget Analyst: $1,100

Centre City Development Corp.: $2600

SANDAG: $500

San Diego Community College District: $2,250

San Diego Housing Commission: $350

Unified Port of San Diego: $3,700

University of California, San Diego: $17,550

UCSD Extension: $150

GRAND TOTAL: $28,200

On Twitter and in emails with CityBeat, Lewis clarified that when VoSD said “government support,” it really meant direct subsidies, that is, grants to the organization specifically for the purpose of supporting journalism. He writes, via email:

There’s a conversation going on in journalism right now about whether the government should subsidize different types of new journalism ventures—or even existing newspapers—to pick up the slack left by the decline in the newspaper industry. Public TV and radio get some form of direct subsidy now, and that’s frequently talked about in journalism circles as well.

We interpreted government support in that form and perhaps wrongly assumed other people would, too. Our point was that we don’t get large sustaining support like that and we wanted to stress that meant we need the community’s support through donations.

We didn’t consider the small amount of advertising revenue we get from some government agencies because it’s not a subsidy. It’s a service for fee. I understand how you’re interpreting it but that was not what we had in mind when making the statement.

We’ve removed that particular appeal for donations.

It is admirable that Lewis acknowledged the error, but blaming it on “other people’s” interpretation of “government support” isn’t fair. Though it has since scrubbed this language from its site, VoSD repeatedly referred to these advertisers as sponsors. On one page, it listed several government agencies under this heading:

“Special thanks to our generous corporate sponsors and community partners, past and present”

On another page, it expressed gratitude to a list of supporters, including some in government:

“Thank you to the following members who financially support our mission to bring independent local news to the San Diego region.”

In addition, visitors to VoSD‘s website who click the tab for “Advertise” are brought to a page with this URL:

http://www.voiceofsandiego.org/support_us/site_sponsorship/

…which links to a media kit with this page, directly equating advertising to sponsorship and emphasizing that advertising spending can be  a “tax-deductible charitable contribution”:

VoSD can’t have it both ways. If in certain contexts it characterizes (and trumpets) advertising as a form of support, it should not turn around and deny that advertising is support. The claim is false.

The question, however, is whether there are aggravating factors. On its Fact Check blog, VoSD uses a limited number of possible determinations: True, Mostly True, Barely True, Misleading, False and Huckster Propaganda. The last in the list goes beyond simple establishment of fact versus fiction, and instead makes a value judgment based on the context of the situation and the responsibility they perceive the speaker has to the public.

The actual language VOSD uses to define Huckster Propaganda:

“The statement is not only inaccurate but it’s reasonable to expect the person or organization making it knew that and made the claim anyway to gain an advantage.”

When CityBeat began questioning Lewis on Twitter, others began to chime in. Mayor Jerry Sanders’ spokesperson, Rachel Laing, declared it Huckster Propaganda (though she later stated she was unsure and it was just fun to say). Paul Cooper, counsel for the San Diego Police Department, suggested a special category—”True if you let us explain what we mean”—since he feels that VoSD unfairly applied the “false” brand to a statement SDPD Chief Bill Lansdowne made in October. Ricky Young, an editor at the Union-Tribune, dug the hardest into Lewis, saying it was clearly huckster propaganda, no formal fact check necessary.

Nevertheless, we promised to issue a final determination and so we examined how VoSD applies the Huckster Propaganda label.

When former CCDC president Nancy Graham claimed she’d been cleared by ethics investigations, when she in fact had been substantially fined, VoSD elevated it to Huckster Propaganda with this explanation (emphasis added):

But in her explanation, she repeatedly misrepresented facts, casting herself in a better light. And these are facts that you could reasonably expect her to know. That makes the totality of her comments Huckster Propaganda.”

When Rep. Duncan Hunter falsely claimed that all of Arizona’s sheriffs and police chiefs supported the controversial anti-illegal-immigration law, SB 1070, VoSD declared it Huckster Propaganda with this rationale (again, emphasis added):

Based on the law’s high publicity in local and national media and Hunter’s own passion for immigration issues, it’s logical to expect that he would be knowledgeable enough to know whether his own statement was factual. For that reason, we’re elevating the statement to Huckster Propaganda.

If we apply VoSD‘s standards to its own statement, we find:

— VoSD repeatedly claimed advertising as a form of support, received advertising from several government agencies, then denied it in solicitations for donations likely seen by hundreds, if not thousands of readers.

— The language implies that readers are looking for an organization that does not receive government support, that Voice is somehow unique or elite in not receiving government support. It seems VoSD cast itself in a better light in order to attract donors.

— Since VoSD serves as its own fundraising agent, it is reasonable to expect it knows who its donors are.

VoSD is regularly cited in the national press and in media journals as a visionary new model for journalism because of its non-profit model and innovative funding scheme, based largely on philanthropic support.

— As a journalistic organization that is passionate about the truth—perhaps best evidenced by its Fact Check blog—it is logical to expect the organization would check its facts before posting them online.

For these reasons, we cannot declare the claim anything short of Huckster Propaganda.

I’ll also add that I wouldn’t survive a fact check myself if I denied that I relished writing this blog post. If you disagree with our determination or analysis, go ahead and post a comment.

UPDATE: I’ve added VoSD’s definition of Huckster Propaganda to the initial post. I’ve received some response—particularly from FishbowlLA—that since VoSD wasn’t flat-out lying, that it shouldn’t be Huckster Propaganda. Most said it was simply “False.” On my own, I’d agree. But that’s that’s not how VoSD applies the determination. In the case of Hunter, for example, his spokesman admitted the error and said that Hunter was only speaking about the sheriff’s he knew about. In other words, as far as Hunter knew, all the sheriff’s supported it. The claim, in my opinion, should’ve been determined “False,” nothing worse. However, VoSD believes that because the issue was so prominent and Hunter was so passionate that ignorance was not an excuse. Similarly, when VoSD called out climate-change denier John Coleman on his claim that the UN has spent billions on research, he admitted that he misspoke. VoSD still called it Huckster Propaganda, because of his prominence in the debate.  For those reasons, VoSD is still on the hook. They may not have thought the claim through thoroughly, they may not have researched there own record properly, and that was sloppy. As a news organization, they can’t afford to be sloppy, especially when they’re asking for people to give them  money and because they are so central to the debate about how journalism should be funded.  The Huckster Propaganda determination stands.

ITEMIZED LIST OF VOSD’S GOVERNMENT REVENUE:

City of San Diego Independent Budget Analyst

Campaign: Independent Budget Analyst–Seeking Applications for Audit Member

$300 –  8/28/2008 – 9/3/2008

Campaign: Independent Budget Analyst

$600 – 9/22/2008 – 10/3/2008

• Campaign: Independent Budget Analyst,

$200 – Dates unavailable.

Total: $1,100

Centre City Development Corporation

Campaign: Promotion of Public Meetings, Exploring the Possibilities for the San Diego’s Civic Center Complex

$1,350 –  8/11/08 – 8/25/08

Campaign: Promotion of Public Meetings, Exploring the Possibilities for the San Diego’s Civic Center Complex

$1,250 –  5/18/2009 – 5/29/2009

Total: $2,600

San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG)

Campaign: workshop series

$500 - 5/17/2010

Total: $500

San Diego Community College District

• Campaign: Promoting Student enrollment

$2,250 – Date unavailable

Total: $2,250

San Diego Housing Commission

Campaign: Job Posting for applicants

$350 –  10/31/2007 – 11/5/2007

Total: $350

Unified Port of San Diego

Campaign: “Port Matters” promoting the services and enjoyment of having a bayfront

$700 – 2/22/2009

Campaign: “Port Matters” promoting the services and enjoyment of having a bayfront

$700 –  4/18/2008

Campaign: “Port Matters” promoting the services and enjoyment of having a bayfront

$700 -  2/22/2008

Campaign: “Port Matters” promoting the services and enjoyment of having a bayfront

$1000 – 7/31/2008?

Campaign: Port Pavilion Grand Opening, Promotion of the new Pavilion on the Broadway Pier

$600 - 12/16/2010

Total: $3,700

University of California at San Diego

Promotion of the Helen Edison Lecture Series

$150 – 9/22/2006

Campaign: Promotion of the Helen Edison Lecture Series

$150 – 10/23/2006

Campaign: Promotion of the Helen Edison Lecture Series

$350 – 11/16/2006

Campaign: Promotion of the Helen Edison Lecture Series

f $150 – 12/4/2006

Campaign: Promotion of the UCSD ROCKS Open House

f $300 – 2/22/2007

Campaign details unavailable

$450 – 3/7/2007

Campaign: “Community Thank You”

$1,000 – 10/15/2008

Campaign: 50th Anniversary (Funds paid through RobertStemler Media) promotion of events and community awareness

$15,000 – 11/2010 – 4/2011

Total: $17,550

University of California at San Diego — Extension Office

Campaign: Promotion of Humanities and Writing Courses

$150 –  Nov. 12 – Dec. 10, 2010

Total: $150

GRAND TOTAL: $28,200


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