A personal saying of mine is “If you must exaggerate to prove a point, others may think your point is exaggerated too.” It’s a reminder to never let the ends justify questionable rhetorical means. Either make your case on the facts or risk being completely ignored like the boy who cried wolf.
Sadly, this is a truism regularly ignored by more and more political “leaders” and too many media outlets in their similar pursuits of attention and clicks. For good examples of both, look no further than the multiple anti-masking/anti-mandate controversaries involving Sacramento County Supervisor Sue Frost.
This included this last week when Frost was rightly exposed online and then in news stories for encouraging a Canada-like trucker convoy to come to Sacramento County. The 4,000-truck Canada convoy has finally wound down, but it succeeded in shutting down part of central Ottawa for multiple weeks. A smaller version closed the International Bridge for six days between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, affecting the auto industry and other trade.
Frost explained Wednesday in a statement and during a county board meeting that her interest was to draw attention to local public health Covid policy that she strongly opposes. However, her Covid position is laced with numerous exaggerations and debunked claims. Further, her encouragement of a large-scale convoy that could potentially shut down part of the local economy was a jaw-dropping example of bankrupt ends-justifying-the-means thinking.
But on the other side, her critics – including some media outlets – went overboard in criticizing not just her truck convoy efforts. They felt a need to throw in the kitchen sink with tenuous additional charges and incorrect facts. This included repeating anonymous, unsubstantiated claims of anti-Semitism and suggesting Frost knowingly supports fascist hate groups like the Proud Boys, which she has regularly denounced.
Now Frost is no stranger to generating Covid controversy. She has defied county masking requirements during in-person board meetings, amplified conspiracy theories, and granted generous amounts of time at meetings for anti-mask, anti-mandate speakers to share widely debunked public health claims.
But at Wednesday’s board meeting, Frost appeared visually affected by this maelstrom of criticism she unleashed and how quickly it escalated. During public comment, a half dozen citizens denounced her and called on the county board to investigate and/or censure her. A similar number of callers expressed support for Frost. But notably, none of her fellow board members defended her.
She almost seemed to ready to express contrition when she said, “I didn’t mean to create this.” However, she never fully crossed that bridge, instead saying, “I am not ashamed of anything I did.”
Frost also said, “A lot of the people who are speaking out today are making some very aggressive accusations around anti-Semitism and me fraternizing with hate groups. I am a 65-year-old woman, for goodness sake. I don’t look that old because I dye my hair, but I don’t hang out with killers and terrorists. I never have, and I never will.”
From my review, many of those accusations do seem excessive and dubious. At the very least they are not strongly corroborated. But it’s hard to feel too sad for Frost. Many of her own claims denouncing school masking rules and vaccine mandates for medical first-responders have been hyperbolic and supported by dizzying conspiracy theories – as pointed out in my Q&A with her last year.
But however Frost justifies her position, even in the third year of a pandemic, opponents need to recognize that her policy differences are still just policy differences. She is also just one out of five county supervisors with no chance for her ideas to be enacted.
That said, Frost’s trucker convoy actions are an entirely different kettle. That’s because disagreeing about how to respond to a public emergency is different from attempting to create a potentially new public emergency. Though encouraging a trucker convoy to come to town is not illegal on its face, no earnest elected public official should ever invite potentially damaging outside protesters – even if only temporarily damaging – into their community.
And this is where criticism of Frost should have stayed focused this past week. For instance, it appears Frost’s Covid views have so clouded her thinking that she hardly thought about what impact a Canada-like protest could have on local businesses. CBS 13 in Sacramento asked her about this, and she weakly responded, “I have absolutely no desire to see local businesses be harmed in any way. I just want more awareness from our government that citizens want to be done with COVID restrictions and they want a return to normalcy.”
At Wednesday’s board meeting, she further rationalized her actions: “The whole [local convoy] got cancelled a couple weeks ago anyways. So it didn’t matter.” Then she seemed to tell quite a whopper by claiming, “I was just trying to collect some crackers and cheese to send to truckers.”
But Frost’s exaggerations and rationalizations should not excuse others who do the same about her. Fighting exaggerations with exaggerations only adds to the confusing marketplace of misinformation and exaggeration out there, especially on a public health topic in which dependable information is essential.
The most exaggerated claims against Frost came of course on social media, but most people come to expect such excesses there. More problematic are major media outlets that saw fit to amplify those online excesses by reporting them without proper journalistic review and verification. A few examples:
Fox 40 News: “Frost reportedly was communicating with [Proud Boys].” Reported by whom? Fox 40 gave no source for this and appears to not have independently verified. Most agree Proud Boys were part of the online group Frost was invited into, but it’s a far fuzzier claim to suggest Frost was purposely “messaging members of the Proud Boys” – especially as no media outlet independently confirmed this.
Sacramento Bee editorial board member Robin Epley: In her Wednesday opinion piece, Epley claimed the anti-vaxx group Freedom Angels, who invited Frost to the online trucker convoy discussion group, “participated in a violent rally in 2020 in front of the California Capitol building.” But according to her paper’s own past reporting, the Freedom Angels “haven’t been tied to any violence.” Epley appears to have simply reprinted the claim from an anonymous Twitter account, which is journalistically problematic for multiple reasons.
Epley also appeared to lift the anti-Semitism suggestion from the same anonymous Twitter account but, again, with no added scrutiny. That poster (see below right) alleged Frost had linked to an anti-Semitic diatribe, but a review of the long document didn’t reveal clear anti-Semitism unless one assumes anyone who uses the term “globalist” or fears world governance is secretly slurring Jewish people.
TO BEE FACTUAL, OR NOT TO BEE
The Epley piece included other bits of hyperbole and unsubstantiated claims, such as that the Canada trucker convoy was “mainly involving far-right and extremist groups.” Her piece also unfortunately builds on past Bee opinion and news pieces that have attacked Frost and suggested close associations by Frost with the Proud Boys though that evidence remains circumstantial at best.
Past Bee reporting included repeating an anonymous online claim that a rally Frost spoke at in August was organized by the Proud Boys. However, that event was for nurses who opposed employment-based vaccine mandates, and while Proud Boys were reported in attendance, they did not organize the event nor appear to have had a formal role.
It is clear the Bee is passionate about fighting pandemic misinformation. But it’s not good when this goal clouds them on proper journalistic standards just as much as Frost’s policy passions clouded her to reach for extreme tactics.
The Frost convoy story was real news, as is whenever Frost propagates Covid misinformation and conspiracy theories. But media outlets do a disservice to informing the public when it layers onto this valid news unsupported claims from social media of anti-Semitism and conspiring with Proud Boys.
And in the Bee’s case, it seems especially hypocritical when it attacks Frost on this public health issue and her right-wing ties, but the paper never reported on two local members of Congress accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from the opioid industry. Or when the paper continues to remain silent about local Congressional candidate Asm. Kevin Kiley who didn’t just speak at a rally that attracted far-right individuals. His event was co-organized by an individual who had called for Americans to arm for civil war, and Kiley shared the stage with other speakers with militia, hate group and QAnon connections.
And this doesn’t need to be an either/or reporting situation. But at least reporting on the opioids donations and Kiley’s extremist ties requires no exaggerating to serve the public interest.