By Ken Stone
Judith Castro-Rangel took no prisoners in her critique of news coverage of a National City mother snatched by border agents on a street in front of her three children.
She slammed the Border Patrol for “all the lies that they put out to distract everybody from what really happened. … [They] said she was a ringleader [and] maybe the daughter was involved in this.”
She recalled a curve ball from a Los Angeles-based Univision reporter in a Chicano Park interview: “So, Judith, can you please tell me a little bit about Perla Morales’ affiliation with the drug cartel and human trafficking?”
And she told a 30-member audience of the annual Society of Professional Journalists’ “Grade the Media” event Wednesday that “when you destroy somebody’s image on national and international television, there’s no taking that back.”
In March 2018, Castro-Rangel posted video of the arrest to Facebook, featuring the anguished cries of the daughters and generating 15 million views in its first two hours.
Two weeks later, the undocumented Perla Morales-Luna was released from custody, never charged with being “an organizer for a transnational criminal smuggling organization” as CBP San Diego had said.
But if the Border Patrol was the villain in that account, it was the hero in another.
Ammar Campa-Najjar, the Democrat making a second run against Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter in the 50th Congressional District, credited the Border Patrol for fact-checking Hunter.
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Actually it was Department of Homeland Security officials who debunked Hunter’s 2014 assertions on Fox News that 10 ISIS terrorists had been caught trying to sneak past the Mexican border into Texas.
Hunter cited Customs and Border Protection, but Campa-Najjar told the forum moderated by KPBS reporter Andrew Bowen that the CBP had to say: “You’re wrong. We never said that.”
The difficulty of nailing down the truth also was illustrated by a difference of opinion over when to report the criminal histories of news subjects.
Bowen asked Tasha Williamson, a candidate for San Diego mayor known for her efforts on behalf of families of people slain by law enforcement, whether the criminal pasts of police victims like National City’s Earl McNeil were relevant for news stories.
“I think no, if it didn’t have anything to do with their death,” she said at the Fermanian Business Center. “Was it a reason why they were killed?”
She argued that inappropriate use of criminal records demonizes victims and “makes the officers look like heroes.”
But Castro-Rangel, the teacher who became an advocate for Morales-Luna, said reporters should have looked into whether the arrested mother had a criminal background.
In fact, she said, Morales-Luna had volunteered “thousands of hours” in her community — at the YMCA and other organizations.
“Was that story ever written?” Bowen asked.
“To this day, that story was never written,” Castro-Rangel replied. “Did the media even care to look into the good things she did?”
The fourth member of the panel — former county Supervisor Ron Roberts, with three decades experience as a news subject — took a lighter tone.
He recalled how one TV station once labeled him on screen as “Jerry Sanders,” the police-chief-turned-mayor-turned-chamber-leader.
Addressing the journalists, Roberts said: “You guys got an impossible job, to be honest. You’re not going to have all the facts. You may be in a position where you don’t get ’em right.”
His presence on the panel was because he’d seen the government’s side of the deadly Hepatitis A outbreak among homeless San Diegans and the scandal involving former SANDAG chief Gary Gallegos, who retired amid what the Union-Tribune called “billions in bungled revenue projections [in a tax measure] and questions about whether there was an attempt to cover it up.”
Roberts defended Gallegos.
“I still think the world of this guy,” he said. “Nobody’s ever done it better (on transit issues).”
Roberts said Gallegos had a choice of conflicting revenue forecasts from SANDAG economist Marney Cox and “a second guy.”
“He didn’t bring the (dissident) forecast to the surface,” said Roberts, SANDAG board chairman during the coverage. “My gut feeling was I never felt that he did that to mislead either me or the public.”
But in the wake of Voice of San Diego’s Andy Keatts’ award-winning coverage of the San Diego Association of Governments scandal, Gallegos retired in August 2017.
“I felt that we as a community lost an asset,” Roberts said, revealing he’d have been happy had Gallegos stayed as executive director another year or two.
Roberts had a chance to confront the author of the major early Hep A stories — San Diego SPJ President Lisa Halverstadt of Voice of San Diego. But he sidestepped a chance to challenge any of her reporting, which could lead to state legislation.
Still, he said, “I wish I had kept a diary, day by day. … The media did its job in getting the word out in a general sense.”
Campa-Najjar recalled the last months of his 2018 congressional race — where he lost by 3.4 percentage points in a GOP district that defeated Democrat Gavin Newsom by 15 points in the governor race.
He said the media and campaign were “drinking from the firehose” with a “lot of disinformation coming out, fake news,” from Hunter’s side, including Web ads and statements linking Campa-Najjar to Islamic terrorism (even though he’s Christian and never knew his long-dead Palestinian grandfather linked to terror acts).
“All of us were the victims of too much information too late,” he said. “That got in the way of us properly explaining all this crazy stuff Hunter was saying. … When there’s so much myth going out there, some of it trickled out without being thoroughly investigated.”
One notable attack, he said, was a statement by three retired generals that Campa-Najjar was a national security risk (even though he’d gotten a security clearance to work for the Obama administration).
Campa-Najjar noted (as many stories did) that the generals were lobbyists who stood to benefit from defense industry contracts while Hunter was a member of the armed services committee.
Most of the panelists stressed the need to get facts right from the start — to avoid mistaken first impressions from becoming cemented in the public’s mind.
“If you don’t have all the facts, don’t report it because you can’t take it back,” Williamson said. “Earl McNeil was killed, and the world saw and the media portrayed him as a drug addict who overdosed.”
The county Medical Examiner’s Office ultimately ruled his death a homicide.
Castro-Rangel, a half-Honduran mother of four whose own parents were deported when she was 15, warned media not to “twist” news for ratings. “That’s really sad. We as citizens of this earth … rely so much on media to get our news.”
Saying she hopes to study political science at USC (and become the first Latina president), Castro-Rangel gave local news media a B grade overall — with television news rating a C “just because I tend to read more than watch TV. Our local media misinterpret a lot of the stories.”
She said she listens to KPBS.“I trust that news outlet … because they didn’t put anything wrong out there,” she said.
Williamson also drew a distinction between commercial and public stations.
She accused NBC Channel 7 of “allowing” reports to go out that “we were going to riot” at a National City council meeting, and said she was injured when arrested.
“They had police come out in riot gear for no reason,” she said. “They spend thousands of dollars for no reason. They were only people using their voices — not there to destroy anything.”
Williamson said her group, the San Diego Compassion Project, “gave more conversations” to KPBS because that public station was “not slanderous.”
After labeling The Economist weekly magazine as the “best source” of international news, Roberts said he’s never seen local news coverage that’s less than a B, “but I would reserve those A’s for something real special.”
Campa-Najjar, who teaches at USD and SDSU, called himself a pretty generous grader.
“I’ll probably give you guys an A for effort, a B in reality,” he said. “The most honest answer I can give you guys is incomplete. My story’s not done. And you guys writing [about] me isn’t done either.”
His parting wish: “For God’s sake, spend a little bit of that ink on the issues and not the identity politics going on in our races.”
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