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Two weeks ago we posted a list of 15 false claims and asked readers to help us determine the winner of our Whopper of the Year award.
Today we’re announcing the finalists and asking for your feedback once again. Then, on Friday, after everyone’s had a few days to debate, we’ll announce the winner.
We’ve chosen the finalists based on reader votes, reader arguments and our view of each claim’s outlandishness. It came down to two claims that readers supported and two others that we felt deserved consideration.
Below, we’ve listed the four finalists and explained why we felt each stood out. We considered the issue’s importance, how much the claim misrepresented reality, how much the claim could impact debate and how much the subject knew.
In chronological order, the finalists are:
Mayor Jerry Sanders
Claim: “We laid off 17 percent of the workforce in San Diego.”
Context: Sanders made the claim to a national audience during a March 23 appearance on the PBS television program The Charlie Rose Show. He aimed to show that San Diego, the city once dubbed “Enron by the Sea,” had made painful cuts over the years but had still been unable to convince voters to increase taxes.
But in five years, the city had laid off just 38 classified employees, less than 1 percent of its entire workforce.
A spokeswoman said Sanders had made a mistake and was actually referring to the number of positions cut from the city’s budget. But still, the claim didn’t check out. The city had reduced the number of positions by 10 percent. Sanders’ office didn’t respond to additional requests for explanation.
Why we chose it: Readers supported making Sanders a finalist because he had three claims on our list of whoppers — more than anyone else. We felt this claim stood above the others because it grossly overstated how Sanders’ administration has responded to the city’s ongoing financial crisis and did so in the context of the public’s unwillingness to approve a tax increase.
County Supervisor Bill Horn
Claim: “During the civil rights movement I worked for Ralph Abernathy and went to jail over the rights of the minority.”
Context: During a heated discussion about redrawing the county’s political boundaries, Horn cited past experiences to repel accusations that he and his colleagues were racist. It was a story Horn had told for at least a decade and it turned out to be false. Horn didn’t go to jail and didn’t work for civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy.
When confronted about the crumbling story, Horn’s spokesman said a couple men who could back up the account had unfortunately passed away. That turned out to be false, too. We tracked down the men and talked to them; neither backed up Horn’s account.
Why we chose it: Researching Horn’s story churned up falsehood after falsehood after falsehood. Though few readers supported making this claim a finalist, we felt exaggerating a person’s sacrifice during the civil rights movement is no small mistake. His office’s claim that the two witnesses were dead made things worse.
San Diego Unified Trustee Shelia Jackson
Claim: “It’s not appropriate for people to come to us and be upset. We didn’t even know what the criteria was, we didn’t even tell the staff which direction we wanted.”
Context: Facing public backlash in November, Jackson and her colleagues retreated from a plan to shutter schools and potentially save the cash-strapped district $5 million annually. The plan had been discussed at heated community meetings for weeks and then suddenly was scrapped.
Parents, teachers and school administrators directed their frustration toward the school and asked why they had been taken on an emotional rollercoaster with little to show for it and why their schools were on the list of possible closures in the first place. Jackson tried to defend that criticism by distancing herself and her colleagues from the plan.
She falsely said the board had nothing to do with the criteria that determined which schools could be closed when it had actually approved the criteria.
Why we chose it: Though this claim received few reader votes, avoiding tough decisions has been a major component of the school district’s ongoing financial problems. The school closure debacle was only the latest example and Jackson tried to duck being held publicly responsible.
Convention Center Expansion Point Man Steve Cushman
Claim: “No general fund.”
Context: With just those three words, Cushman dodged a central debate in the Convention Center’s proposed expansion. The general fund is the pot of taxpayer money in the city of San Diego that pays for core services like police, parks and libraries. Tapping it for big buildings is always a big deal.
If anyone knew the plan to fund the Convention Center’s expansion includes $105 million from the general fund, it would be Cushman. He created the financing plan and has been the mayor’s point man on the project.
And yet, shortly before an important, recent City Council vote, Cushman falsely claimed the plan included no general fund money.
Why we chose it: Readers supported making this claim a finalist and we agreed. By saying no general fund, Cushman incorrectly described how a major proposal would impact the city’s day-to-day budget. Each year for three decades, about $3.5 million would go toward the Convention Center expansion instead of core city services.
Why DeMaio Didn’t Make the Cut
If the Whopper of the Year award was based purely on reader voters, City Councilman Carl DeMaio would’ve won for a claim on pension costs. Since pension costs are a central theme of his political career and campaign for mayor, readers said his exaggeration had been the worst blunder of them all.
However, we excluded DeMaio’s claim from our list of finalists. We felt it just didn’t match the outlandishness of the Huckster Propaganda claims by Horn, Jackson or Cushman. It also didn’t match the national reach or misrepresent reality as much as Sanders’ false claim.
DeMaio posted the overstated pension cost estimate to his Facebook page and made the error by confusing spending and taxes. When confronted about the mistake, a spokesman acknowledged what amounted to a mathematical error.
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