Fact-Checking the Weekly’s Fact Check On My Fact Check (Yes, We’re Talking About YIMBYs)

Last Friday, Seattle Weekly appended a lengthy editor’s note to its error-riddled story about Seattle’s YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard) movement, which was written by a California activist who wrote an article last year asserting that YIMBYs are members of the “alt-right.” 

After a couple of perfunctory corrections (more on those in a moment), the editor’s note spends four paragraphs chiding me for a post I wrote fact-checking the Weekly’s piece and pointing out the ways in which the writer misrepresented himself to people he interviewed and mischaracterized the views of groups with which he disagreed.

This post is my response to the Weekly’s “Editorial Response,” which ran in both the print and online editions of the paper.

The note begins by arguing that my “criticism … relies heavily on her own imagined projections about how the story was put together.”

For example, Barnett suggests that we were completely unaware of the writer’s background and should’ve “googled him.” That’s simply not true. We were aware that Meronek (a San Francisco-based, Seattle native) had written articles in the past that had drawn the ire of people within the YIMBY movement. Perhaps that could’ve been framed better, but the idea that a reporter shouldn’t be able to write on a topic because of backlash they’ve received from the subject’s side would have a chilling effect (it would be incredibly difficult to write about the current Presidential administration, for example).

Well, I am just a silly girl given to flights of fancy and “imagined projections,” but even my ladybrain is capable of parsing that paragraph: The Weekly is saying that their editor, Seth Sommerfeld, was familiar with Meronek’s work, and was aware that it had caused an uproar because Meronek got a bunch of facts wrong, mischaracterized people’s comments and views, and made outrageous statements about YIMBYs, the subject of his piece. (Just this week, Meronek accused San Francisco YIMBYs of ethnic cleansing on his Twitter feed.)  He knew about Meronek’s error-riddled polemic calling YIMBYs members of the “alt-right.” He knew, too, about Meronek’s piece arguing that YIMBYs’ “politics are rooted in racist and anti-poor conservative neoliberal ideologies first inaugurated by Ronald Reagan.” He dismissed attempts to fact-check Meronek’s polemics by women (they were all women) in the Bay Area as “ire” aimed at a writer whose perspective they just didn’t like. And he decided Meronek would be a great person to cover the YIMBY movement in Seattle.

Given all that, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that my suggestion that the Weekly could have found a local reporter, with actual reporting credentials, would get me compared to Trump. After all, isn’t suggesting that reporters ought to meet some basic standards—like characterizing people accurately, getting their facts straight, and not misrepresenting themselves to people they interview—exactly the same thing as saying that people whose opinions are controversial should be banned from writing? It’s like I always say: If you piss anyone off with your writing, you should pick another profession, because the point of journalism is to make everybody happy. Oh, wait. I don’t say that. In fact, some days I feel like my Twitter feed, emails, and comments are just a firehose of vitriol. If you aren’t pissing anyone off, you aren’t doing your job. The problem with Meronek isn’t that he made all those YIMBYs in California mad. The problem is that he misrepresented himself, mischaracterized them, and got a ton of verifiable facts wrong—and then came and did the same thing here.

The paragraph about the Central District being even more cost-prohibitive for people of color due to market-rate development (which is factual) at no point says that it’s the only reason for the demographic shift in the neighborhood. Barnett goes on for paragraphs about the issue, but this article wasn’t about the Central District, so a comprehensive history would’ve been a diversion.

First: Just saying something is “factual” doesn’t make it true (my post outlines, apparently at great length, why this claim is not supported by facts.) Second: I wasn’t asking for a “comprehensive history” of the Central District, nor did I attempt to provide one, even if I did “go on for paragraphs” (two) about Meronek’s error. My point was that Meronek’s claim that recent market-rate development has forced people out of the Central District is simply inaccurate, belied by history; market-rate development in the Central District is a very recent development, and at the risk of quoting from the piece where I apprently droned on for so long even Seattle Weekly got bored, my issue with Meronek’s claim was that the Central District began gentrifying dramatically years ago, thanks largely to high taxes, poor loan terms, and a lack of affordable housing. I don’t think the Weekly needed to publish a “comprehensive history” of the Central District. I think taking out the section that blamed the recent “unleash[ing] of market-rate development” on the area for gentrification that started 30 years ago (and maybe not referring to the area as “The District”) would have sufficed.

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In regards to the email contact between Seattle Weekly and Sightline, the numbers and money flow regarding Sightline and Good Ventures were corrected and clarified in a previous update. The quote about a “matter of perception” was willfully taken out of context and had nothing to do with Sightline’s money, but was a response to the other portions of the Sightline email which were not mentioned. (While Barnett was in contact with Sightline, she made no effort to contact Seattle Weekly.)

The issue wasn’t “the numbers and money flow”; the issue was the outrageous claim that Alan Durning, Sightline’s director, had “funneled at least 1.3 million dollars to YIMBY organizations through the charity Good Ventures, founded by Facebook billionaire Dustin Moskovitz.” This suggests that Durning, and Sightline, have directed out-of-town money through mysterious channels to shady groups (the “shady” is implied). The fact that the reverse is true (Good Ventures/Open Philanthropy gave Sightline a total of $800,000 in two chunks over three years) isn’t just a matter of fixing “the numbers and money flow”; any correction should also correct the original implication, not just the direction the money went.

Sommerfeld accuses me of “willfully taking” his email to Sightline “out of context.” My response to that one is simple: The email is short, I characterized it accurately, and I took nothing out of context, “willfully” or otherwise. Here’s how I described Sommerfeld’s response to the error (which was, at least initially, to add up a bunch of numbers that didn’t actually total $1.3 million and claim that no error existed):

This is confirmed by an email from Weekly editor Seth Sommerfield to Sightline, in which Sommerfield explained that the $1.3 million number was “the approximate sum of these grants specifically: Sightline $350,000 10/17; East Bay Forward $40,000 4/17;  Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corp. $300,000 7/16; California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund $300,000 6/16; Sightline $450,000 10/15.” … Sommerfeld then said that any issues with the way the Weekly characterized Sightline were just “a matter of your perception, not based on false reporting.”

And here’s the entire email from Somerfeld to Kelsey Hamlin, Sightline’s communications associate:

Finally, the Weekly is bent out of shape that I didn’t contact them directly when fact-checking their story. This is a weird objection. A fact-checker is no more obligated to contact the author of an erroneous piece to go over his errors with him (or with his editor) than a reporter citing a set of statistics in a government document is obliged to contact the author of the report. Facts are either right or wrong. To use another Trump analogy, it’s like insisting that NPR’s crack annotation team get the president  on the phone when they know he’s lying to give him a chance to explain his own interpretation of the facts.

And speaking of which, the story is still wrong. In the original version of his piece, Meronek claimed that a single, childless person making up to $84,000 would be eligible for affordable housing through the city’s inclusionary zoning program, which he described as a program where “developers must set aside a few units in new condo complex as below-market-rate.” This was wrong on a whole bunch of levels: “New condo complexes” aren’t getting built in Seattle, for a whole bunch of reasons, and Seattle’s inclusionary zoning program, known as Mandatory Housing Affordability, creates rental units, not condos. (Inclusionary zoning is a catchall term for programs that give developers height and density bonuses in exchange for paying into an affordable housing fund or building affordable units on site.) The Office of Housing does invest in homeownership programs, for which a single person making up to $84,000 would be eligible, but those are separate from MHA. Only people making up to 80 percent of median income, or about $56,200 for a single person, can qualify for MHA. So that whole section is a mess.

But the “corrected”version  actually compounds the error:

Another solution would be to put more controls on who can apply for the city’s major affordable-housing push: inclusionary zoning, wherein developers must set aside a few units in new condo complexes as below-market-rate. As it stands, in Seattle an unmarried, childless buyer can make up to $84,000—or 120 percent of the area median income—and still be eligible for this affordable housing via the Multifamily Tax Exception. (Under the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability program, renters making around $40,000—which is 60 percent area median income—are considered eligible for this affordable housing.) 

His description of inclusionary zoning is still inaccurate, but now even more confusing (and inaccurate). People making up to 120 percent of median can indeed qualify for homeownership assistance under the Multifamily Tax Exemption (not “tax exception”) program, but that program—which provides a property tax exemption to developers who agree to set aside some units as affordable for 12 years—isn’t an inclusionary zoning program. It has nothing to do with zoning at all.

Oh, and $40,000 is not 60 percent of the Seattle area median income; the real number is $42,150.

My point in pointing all this out isn’t to gloat or suggest that I don’t make errors, or that I never inadvertently mischaracterize people’s positions. Believe me, I do—every reporter does. The responsible thing to do when that happens, though, is to quickly make sure you understand what the facts are and why you got them wrong, append a correction/retraction identifying and addressing the specific error, express regret, and try to do better in the future. Not issue a condescending editor’s note accusing the person who pointed those errors out of imagining things, taking quotes “out of context,” and trying to stifle free speech, of all things, by suggesting that people shouldn’t be allowed to report on a topic if they’ve ever elicited a “backlash.” That kind of stuff may get clicks, but it doesn’t build long-term trust in your publication—and it may elicit a backlash of its own.

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