Last week, when Thurston County Superior Court Judge James Dixon ruled in favor of the National Rifle Association and Alan Gottlieb’s legal challenge to Initiative 1639, ordering Secretary of State Kim Wyman not to place it on the November 2018 ballot, right wing blogs and media outlets had a field day.
In their rush to celebrate, they neglected to emphasize (or didn’t mention at all) that Dixon’s decision was being appealed and wouldn’t be the final word.
“NRA Wins Lawsuit in Washington State, Prevents I‑1639 From Appearing on Ballot,” read a triumphant headline on the National Rifle Association’s website.
“Judge Sides with NRA, 2nd Amendment Foundation, Disqualifies Washington Gun Control Initiative,” proclaimed a lede on the right wing website Breitbart.
“NRA wins Washington case, stops gun control initiative from going to ballot,” read the title of the MYNorthwest.com staff report on Dixon’s ruling. (MYNorthwest is the online home of right wing talkers like Dori Monson and Jason Rantz.)
Even Sinclair-owned KOMO TV got in on the deception.
“This fall, you won’t be voting on an initiative to make it more difficult to buy a semi-automatic rifle,” anchor Molly Shen imprudently told KOMO viewers at the top of an evening newscast on August 17th. Coanchor Eric Johnson added by way of explanation: “A Thurston County judge ruled today that the petition for Initiative 1639 did not meet all the requirements to make it onto the ballot.”
All of those ledes consisted of what are now indisputably erroneous statements. People were wrongly encouraged to believe that I‑1639 was dead, when it wasn’t.
Last night, in an opinion signed by Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst, the Washington State Supreme Court put the kibosh on Dixon’s ruling, unanimously overturning his decision and holding that he erred in granting the NRA and Gottlieb’s motion for a writ of mandamus. The high court’s ruling means that the NRA has actually lost its lawsuit and Washingtonians will get to vote on Initiative 1639 this November.
But you wouldn’t necessarily know that from looking at the NRA’s website. While the NRA did link to Joseph O’Sullivan’s Seattle Times story on the Supreme Court’s verdict, it has not updated its original post from last Friday to clarify that it didn’t actually prevent I‑1639 from appearing on the ballot after all.
The only indication that Dixon’s ruling (hailed by the NRA as a “Washington Win!”) might not be an enduring victory is at the end of its posting, where it admits: “The initiative proponents will likely appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court.”
KOMO’s story likewise acknowledged that an appeal had been filed with the Supreme Court, but that came much later in the segment than it should have.
Here’s a transcript for full context:
ANCHOR MOLLY SHEN: This fall, you won’t be voting on an initiative to make it more difficult to buy a semi-automatic rifle.
ANCHOR ERIC JOHNSON: A Thurston County judge ruled today that the petition for Initiative 1639 did not meet all the requirements to make it onto the ballot. KOMO’s Suzanne Phan joins us from Bellevue with the reaction tonight. Suzanne?
REPORTER SUZANNE PHAN: Well, gun-control advocates say they are shocked [and] they’re surprised that a judge sided with the NRA and not the 378,000 people who signed the petition. Meanwhile, gun rights advocates say that initiative is flawed.
VOICEOVER (AMANDA TURNER, BRADY CAMPAIGN TO PREVENT GUN VIOLENCE): “Definitely, it was a blow today.”
SUZANNE PHAN: It’s a big blow for some, and a big win for others. Thurston County Superior Court ruled today in favor of the NRA, and stopped I-1639 from appearing on the ballot. The initiative has to do with the sale of semi-automatic rifles in Washington State.
The measure raises the age limit from eighteen to twenty-one to purchase semi-automatic rifles. It would have required a ten-day waiting period for the purchase of those guns. It requires more extensive background checks for the weapons.
The NRA and the Second Amendment Foundation [in actuality, Alan Gottlieb, not the Second Amendment Foundation] filed a lawsuit against the Secretary of State claiming the petitions didn’t follow the law, that the font size was too small to read, and didn’t include strikethroughs. The judge agreed.
JUDGE DIXON: It’s not readable to me.
SUZANNE PHAN: Supporters of I-1639 were stunned.
PACIFICA LAW GROUP’S GREG WONG: At no point in Washington State has [a court] ever prevented an initiative from going to the ballot based on alleged defects in the petition.
SUZANNE PHAN: Amanda Turner of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence was surprised by the court ruling.
AMANDA TURNER [VIA PHONE]: They know Washington supports safer communities and safer schools. Because they can’t change the hearts and minds of Washingtonians, they’re going through the court system, and trying to nitpick things apart, because that is the only way they can win.
SUZANNE PHAN: Alan Gottlieb is with Second Amendment Foundation. He agrees with what the judge did this morning, and says the initiative is flawed.
ALAN GOTTLIEB [ON-CAMERA INTERVIEW WITH PHAN]: We all want to end gun violence, we all want to end shooting deaths, but you don’t do it by taking away law-abiding people’s rights and restricting things that aren’t going to solve the problem.
SUZANNE PHAN: And we talked to the Alliance for Gun Responsibility this afternoon. They say they’ve already appealed today’s decision with the state Supreme Court. Live in Bellevue, Suzanne Phan, KOMO News.
ERIC JOHNSON: Secretary of State Kim Wyman reacted to the decision. She certified the petitions at the end of July. Her statement said: “No matter the issue, this office has a long track record of protecting the people’s constitutional right to initiative and referendum. Whenever questions are raised about petitions submitted by initiative backers facing a statutory deadline, my office has consistently acted accordingly.” And she thanked the judge for making a quick decision so her office can continue to prepare for the election.
Last night, about ten minutes into its 11 PM newscast, KOMO reported on the Supreme Court’s ruling reversing Judge Dixon. In a brief segment, anchor Mary Nam informed viewers that I‑1639 would be on the ballot after all.
Of course, no mention was made of last week’s erroneous lede.
As bad as the KOMO and NRA ledes were, though, Breitbart and MYNorthwest’s conduct was even worse. Neither bothered to mention to their readers that an appeal had been filed with the Supreme Court when they wrote about Dixon’s decision. Omitting that key piece of information was irresponsible.
For the sake of comparison, here is the opening paragraph of the MYNorthwest story on Dixon’s decision and the opening paragraph of the story written by The Seattle Times’ Joseph O’Sullivan, who is a respected journalist:
|Organizers behind gun control Initiative 1639 did not comply with state signature gathering rules, according to a Thurston County superior court judge who ruled in favor of the NRA Friday. I‑1639 will now be removed from the November ballot.||A Thurston County judge Friday dealt a major blow to a proposed firearms-regulation measure, raising questions about whether Initiative 1639 will appear on Washington’s fall ballot.|
Notice how different those ledes are. One lends the impression that I‑1639 is dead and buried. The other lede (O’Sullivan’s) accurately conveys the true state of affairs, relating that I‑1639 has been dealt a blow by a judge, but isn’t dead yet.
Only a few paragraphs later, O’Sullivan’s story responsibly informs readers that the Supreme Court has been asked to weigh in by Safe Schools Safe Communities, the Yes on I‑1639 campaign, represented by Pacifica Law Group’s Greg Wong.
The MYNorthwest staff report, meanwhile, didn’t mention this fact at all.
It’s too bad that the right wing blogs and media outlets called out above chose not to be forthright with their audiences when they trumpeted Dixon’s ruling. Even advocacy journalists can be committed to fair, honest, and sound reporting.
If we held our breath waiting for an apology or a correction from these guys, we’d pass out from a lack of oxygen, so we certainly won’t be doing that.
But we do think this deceptive reporting makes for a good case study. It’s a reminder that many right wingers just don’t care about journalistic ethics. They’re more interested in publishing propaganda and projecting their dishonesty onto others. When you hear somebody regularly screaming “Fake news!”, that’s a sure sign they’re a regular purveyor of information that is false or out of context.