After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Americans were told “See something. Say something.” Generally though, such reminders should be unnecessary for journalists, as the job is to pay attention and promptly report what you learn.
But as with all members of society, media outlets have their tendencies and blind spots. Such is human nature. But when a news outlet repeatedly makes the same mistake on an issue of great public importance, then the rest of us are wise to employ the “see something, say something” rule.
Such was the case last week when the Sacramento Bee again published a story about the extreme far-right while reporting little of the actual extremism. The article was an April 8 profile of Carlsbad, Calif. chiropractor Cordie Williams entitled “How an anti-mask, anti-vaccine activist became a leader of the Gavin Newsom recall.” Although not a flattering profile, it was most remarkable for omitting most of William’s most extreme rhetoric and actions that have been reported elsewhere.
This began with the headline that described Williams as a mere anti-mask activist. The body of the story – written by state capitol reporter Lara Korte – did the same, failing to capture the full range of Williams’ rhetoric, radicalism and associations. For instance, Korte made no mention of Williams’ call earlier this year for Americans to arm themselves for a coming ideological civil war. Likewise, there was no mention of the white-militia flags, images and symbols that have been featured on the home page of his 1776 Forever Free group. And no mention of his belief that Democrats are possessed by demon evil and need to be aggressively stopped.
Without such background, the average reader could conclude: No dangerous radicalism here. Just a misguided anti-mask anti-vaxxer.
Such incomplete reporting about the far-right is not new for the Bee. On Aug. 1 last year, it covered a far-right rally at the California state capitol that was replete with extremist rhetoric. Williams was one of the feature speakers, but the Bee’s reporting on the rally mentioned none of the extremism, including a call for death to all Democrats. Instead, the Bee characterized it as a gathering of conservatives who “chanted in opposition to stay-at-home orders” and “demonstrated in support of law enforcement.” (I reported on the event quite differently. Later, it came as no surprise to learn where some of the participants are today – including one in jail.)
The Williams profile did note his penchant for Nazi references. This includes frequently comparing Gov. Gavin Newsom to Hitler. Korte also noted at the Aug. 1 rally that he suggested the left was marching Americans toward an Auschwitz-style furnace – rhetoric overlooked in Bee’s original coverage of that rally.
At the time, I found the Auschwitz reference shocking and reported it as such. However, without the proper context of Williams’ other extremist views, readers of the Bee’s April 8 profile of Williams could be forgiven if they dismissed this as just hyperbole from a harmless bombast and not dangerous rhetoric worthy of further investigation.
But investigate him and his radicalism is exactly what Williams’ home-area NBC affiliate in San Diego did in January. This came a week after Williams returned from the Jan. 6 Stop the Steal protests in D.C. that begat the deadly insurrection. Williams told the investigative reporter he did not participate in the riot, but during the event, he did call its participants “patriots.” Right after the event, Williams also issued a videotaped call for Americans to arm themselves for a coming ideological war.
In other words, NBC San Diego saw something concerning in their community, and used their journalistic tools to say something on air.
But oddly when the Bee’s profile noted the NBC San Diego report, it stripped out any mention of the report’s main thrust: Williams’ potentially dangerous radicalism. Instead, this is what Korte shared from that hard-hitting report:
“[Williams] told a San Diego TV station earlier this year that he wanted an audit of the 2020 election results. He also expressed dismay at the policies designed to stop the spread of COVID-19.”
Unintended or not, we are left with the same sanitized message: No dangerous radicalism here. Just an anti-masker expressing “dismay.”
Korte did question recall-petition leaders about their associating with Williams. This included on March 7 at their Sacramento news conference. This was fair scrutiny, however, Korte did not extend this same scrutiny to state GOP leaders for doing the same on that same day. After the March 7 news conference, both state GOP Chair Jessica Patterson and Assemblyman Kevin Kiley (R-Rocklin) joined Williams on stage at a Sacramento recall rally co-sponsored by Williams’ 1776 Forever Free group.
Plus, another featured speaker at that rally was Scott Presler, a recent national strategist for one of the largest anti-Muslim hate groups in the U.S. I happen to know Patterson and Kiley were aware of Williams and Presler’s backgrounds prior to the event. That’s because I had forwarded it to them earlier that week and repeatedly followed up for comment. Neither would respond, and both still spoke at the rally.
Coincidentally on the same day that the Bee’s profile ran, CNN.com published an essay by New York University historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat. She warned about new lies and omissions about the Jan. 6 riot being pushed by Republicans and conservative commentators. She said these seemed designed to rewrite the history of that day and bury the violence. She warned, “History shows that burying violence creates the conditions for its repetition.”
The same can be said of media outlets that routinely water down or fail to report on extremism that exists openly in our midst. So why did the Bee run a critical profile if not willing to report on the subject’s most controversial actions and statements? Why sanitize its description of a hard-hitting investigative report by the NBC San Diego investigative team? And why criticize the recall-petition organizers but not elected GOP officials for associating with Williams?
To find out, I contacted Korte. She politely thanked me for reaching out but expressed her preference for her reporting to speak for itself. Fair enough, but unfortunately, her other major piece of reporting on the far-right for the Bee showed a similar pattern of incompleteness and watering down.
Her Sept. 28 feature last year focused on California Congressional candidates with QAnon connections and endorsed by the state GOP. Korte spotlighted three candidates with QAnon connections, but glaringly omitted the one QAnon-associated candidate running in Sacramento County. The candidate was also endorsed by state GOP and his QAnon associations were widely reported by national outlets like the Washington Post, Axios and Forbes, but never by the Bee.
So why was this Sacramento candidate omitted? (The Bee also never shared with its readers that this same local GOP candidate had trained his campaign staff and volunteers using the same former strategist from the anti-Muslim hate group mentioned above.) Thus Sacramento readers unfamiliar with these details may well have come away from Korte’s QAnon piece thinking: Thank goodness there’s no QAnon crazies here. Maybe elsewhere, but not here.
Taking these three pieces together – the April 7 Williams profile, the Sept. 28 QAnon feature, and the Aug. 1 rally piece – suggests an at least either consistently poor research or an extremely lax attitude by the Bee toward far-right extremism and the threat posed by it.
In fairness, I will note one laudatory exception. This was a Bee exclusive in February about the local Proud Boy who the Sacramento County GOP was about to install on their executive committee. This excellent piece of reporting ultimately forced the county GOP to expel the individual from its ranks. If only this kind of complete, public-interested reporting were the rule at the Bee.
By not consistently and fully reporting on blatant extremism in their communities, media outlets fail to live up to their critical watchdog role. This lets elected officials and political organizations avoid the public shame that their toleration of such radicalism deserves. Plus, in the absence of such reporting, the potential increases for a repeat of the attempted hostage taking of the Michigan governor, or the deadly Jan. 6 riots, or something worse still.
So to keep it simple: “See something. Fully report something.”