Times and UFW exchange fire

The war of words between the United Farm Workers union and the Los Angeles Times continues. To catch you up, the Times in January ran an investigative series on the union by Miriam Pawel, to much interest. UFW officials complained before the series began, and have cried foul ever since. Meanwhile, Pawel took the buyout, the Times had a testy visit from Latino leaders, and the paper refused the union's demand for a retraction. Now this week, Times editor Dean Baquet sent the UFW a four-page letter rejecting the union's long list of grievances (big PDF file) about the paper's recent investigative series. Baquet writes:

While we appreciate that your perception of the Farm Worker Movement differs from that presented in The Times, we don�t believe the arguments you make successfully support the idea that our portrayal was inaccurate.

Where you challenged a specific fact, we went back and rechecked it, generally relying on primary source documents. Based on the information you recently provided us, we corrected three historical points and we drew readers� attention to these in a �For the Record� on Sunday, February 12. In the same place, we also clarified a statement that you complained of even though we believed that it was clear.

Rather than finding any other errors in our reporting, we have found errors in a number of your allegations.

Within two hours of me receiving this unsolicited from the Times, the union's communications consultant, Stephen Rivers, somehow learned I had it and forwarded me Friday's response from UFW president Arturo S. Rodriguez. Here's the top:

I am writing on behalf of myself, Paul Chavez and Dolores Huerta. Your letter to us of February 21 is riddled with inaccuracies, distortions and evasions. Just a few examples follow:

You dismissed the effect of 16 years of anti-UFW, pro-grower Republican Govs. Deukmejian and Wilson, producing lost contracts and union members, as not worthy of any mention in the series. (That's like writing an article about how The Times has lost hundreds of thousands of subscribers over the last 10 years and blaming it all on internal factors (ownership changes, turnover in editors and publishers, the Staples fiasco) and not even mentioning the most relevant external issue: the rise of the Internet and the change in the way people get their news.)

Both letters follow in their entirety.

Baquet's letter:

February 21, 2006

Mr. Arturo S. Rodriguez
President, United Farm Workers
Mr. Paul F. Chavez
President, National Farm Workers Service Center, Inc.
Mrs. Dolores Huerta
Co-Founder, United Farm Workers
c/o Farm Workers Movement
National Headquarters: La Paz
P. O. Box 62
Keene, CA 93531

Dear Sirs and Madam:

We have carefully reviewed the lengthy written materials you sent us and also considered the points you made during your visit here.

After a thorough examination of each of your many points, we have seen nothing that changes our view that the series was fair.

While we appreciate that your perception of the Farm Worker Movement differs from that presented in The Times, we don�t believe the arguments you make successfully support the idea that our portrayal was inaccurate.

Where you challenged a specific fact, we went back and rechecked it, generally relying on primary source documents. Based on the information you recently provided us, we corrected three historical points and we drew readers� attention to these in a �For the Record� on Sunday, February 12. In the same place, we also clarified a statement that you complained of even though we believed that it was clear.

Rather than finding any other errors in our reporting, we have found errors in a number of your allegations. I�ll point out a few instances instead of going through a point-by-point rebuttal.

You challenge, for example, the statement that the UFW has invoked the mandatory mediation law only once and say you invoked it in 2005 to win a contract at D�Arrigo Brothers. But state records show, and state officials assert, that the single invocation of the law concerned Pictsweet Mushrooms in 2003, and that there was no second invocation in the D'Arrigo Brothers case.

You also quote attorney Barbara Macri as vehemently denouncing a statement in the story that a federal judge found Cesar Chavez acted illegally in removing paid union representatives because they were elected, not appointed. Although you say Macri represented the UFW in that litigation, Macri was not an attorney when the judge's ruling was issued in 1982. She was not admitted to the bar until 1987. The UFW attorney who actually handled the case was quoted in the story; the judge�s written decision supported the statement in the story.

You allege that various quotes are taken out of context or are inaccurate. Miriam Pawel has rechecked her notes and we find them to be accurate and in context. In fact, the taped interviews support the use of the quotes as they were reported in the stories. The �transcripts� you cite in your letter are often erroneous, recreated after the fact from notes that Marc Grossman typed into his computer as the interviews were being conducted.

One area that you have focused on revolves around the question of whether the National Farm Workers Service Center�s affordable housing projects, laudable as they may be, are aimed at farmworkers. During interviews earlier in the reporting of the series, various top officials in the Farm Worker Movement talked with pride and enthusiasm about the rapid expansion of decent, affordable housing for low-income families across the Southwest. They also talked about how that fit with the decision to shift focus, adopting a goal for the movement of helping 100,000 Latinos and going beyond helping the very small percentage of Latinos who work in the fields. You were open about acknowledging that the housing was aimed at lower-income earners but not, for the most part, farmworkers.

It�s true we did not use the statistic you urged us to just prior to publication � that 1,900 of the 3,500 housing units were �in farmworker communities� � because the issue isn�t where the projects are located, it�s whether farmworkers are living in them.

In fact, we found many of your arguments relied on selective use of information that simply was at odds with basic, indisputable facts. In explaining how money from the Martin Luther King fund was spent in recent years, for example, you say it went to help nonprofit organizations � but fail to point out that they are all part of the Farm

Worker Movement and that, according to your tax returns, the money was spent on general administrative purposes.

Many of the issues you raised, in person and in writing, allege we omitted material that would have presented your organizations in a more favorable light. We considered these points, many of which you raised prior to publication, and made careful and reasoned decisions about what to include in the story and why. Our reporting led us to conclude that things were often much more complex than you suggest.

For example, you have argued that we should have included the effect that 16 years of Republican administrations in Sacramento had on the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, whose actions caused the union to lose contracts, members and dues. Yet the bulk of the election victories you achieved during what you call your �current organizing campaign� � since 1994 � occurred before 1998, and income from dues during those four years more than doubled � all under a Republican governor.

As I�m sure you can appreciate, hours and hours of reporting goes into articles such as these. Wherever possible, we endeavor to report not just what someone says, but what we can determine to be accurate. We did not include in the story, for example, a quote from Mr. Rodriguez in which he said that dues paid for 60% to 70% of his budget � more than twice the correct percentage � because documents showed that he misspoke.

While we understand that you feel your views were not sufficiently represented, we disagree with your claim that you were not offered an opportunity to respond; you were asked about almost every point. The claim that there were 71 points that you were not given an opportunity to respond to is simply not correct.

To list just a few errors, Mr. Rodriguez himself � at an October interview attended by Mr. Grossman, who took notes � was asked about the Calexico ballot measure, the support of gay marriage and the contract to represent pre-fab assemblers.

You were also informed, several times at length, about the overall focus of the stories.

Where you brought added facts to our attention, we adjusted stories even at the last minute; for example, when Paul Chavez corrected information about the negotiations to sell the Fresno land and put forth a new reason for why the Service Center needed the cash, we changed the stories to reflect that new information. When John Wilhelm, at your urging, asked to speak with our reporter two days before the series began, we accommodated him and added a comment in the first-day story.

We understand that you don�t like the contents of the articles, but after a careful examination we remain confident that the picture we presented is fair.

Sincerely,

Dean Baquet

Now Rodriguez:

Feb. 24, 2006

Dean Baquet, Editor
Los Angeles Times
202 West First Street
Los Angeles, CA 90012

Dear Mr. Baquet:

I am writing on behalf of myself, Paul Chavez and Dolores Huerta. Your letter to us of February 21 is riddled with inaccuracies, distortions and evasions. Just a few examples follow:

You dismissed the effect of 16 years of anti-UFW, pro-grower Republican Govs. Deukmejian and Wilson, producing lost contracts and union members, as not worthy of any mention in the series. (That's like writing an article about how The Times has lost hundreds of thousands of subscribers over the last 10 years and blaming it all on internal factors (ownership changes, turnover in editors and publishers, the Staples fiasco) and not even mentioning the most relevant external issue: the rise of the Internet and the change in the way people get their news.)

Your letter noted most UFW election wins since 1994 occurred before 1998, and income from dues during those four years more than doubled all under a Republican governor. Why didn't Miriam Pawel's story mention your letter's acknowledgement that "income from dues during those four years more than doubled"--a clear indication that UFW organizing was enjoying success during the same period when a central premise of coverage was that the UFW was "failing to organize" farm workers?

Why didn't Pawel mention in her January 8 story--or why didn't The Times include among its pie charts--the significant increase in dues income for the UFW, from $734,696 in 1994, when the current organizing campaign began, to more than $2 million in 2004? (Closer to tripling than doubling, by the way.) Was it because such information would have directly contradicted Pawel's chief premise that the UFW is ''failing to organize?''

You rejected as ''selective use of information'' the fact that the Cesar E. Chavez Development Fund has donated just under $5 million since 1994 to other farm worker non-profit organizations, because the money was spent on ''general administrative purposes.'' Those funds went to organizations developing Spanish-language educational radio stations primarily serving farm workers, initiating community organizing to improve life in local farm worker areas of California and Texas, helping farm workers and other workers improve their job skills and learn vocational English, and educating young people about Cesar Chavez's life and work. What do you think would happen to all the good work of these groups if they didn't pay rent, salaries and other expenses required to support their activities?

The Times series charged, "[Paul] Chavez also heads the Cesar E. Chavez Development Fund, which sits on almost $10 million and uses the interest to help support the Service Center and other related charities--even as the UFW issues desperate pleas for the donations?"

The Chavez development fund is a private, non-operating foundation that is precluded by law from making charitable contributions to non-501(c)(3) organizations. This fund can only give money to other non-profit, tax-exempt groups. The UFW is a labor organization and not a 501(c)(3) organization. Was Miriam Pawel not aware of these facts? If not, why not? If so, why the juxtaposition and the unfair implication?

You wrote The Times did not include "a quote from Mr. Rodriguez in which he said that dues paid for 60% or 70% of his budget--more than twice the correct percentage--because documents showed that he misspoke."

If you will check the tape of Miriam Pawel's October 24, 2005 interview with me, you will find that I corrected my earlier misstatement on the dues myself, long before publication of the story.

Your letter listed "just a few errors" from our contention that Pawel repeatedly failed to ask the UFW or other Farm Worker Movement organizations for comment on matters big and small. You wrote, "Mr. Rodriguez himself--at an October interview attended by Mr. Grossman, who took notes--was asked about the Calexico ballot measure, the support of gay marriage and the contract to represent pre-fab assemblers." That's technically true, but misleading:

During that Oct. 24, 2005 interview, Pawel asked me one question about "casinos" She didn't ask about the UFW's endorsement and voter education effort last year on behalf of Measure N, the citywide proposal on the June 7, 2004 Calexico ballot. So the UFW didn't have an opportunity to tell Pawel for her story the fact that Measure N will bring 2,400 good-quality, high-paying casino jobs with full benefits to this economically depressed Imperial Valley community on the Mexican border that lost most of its agricultural jobs in recent decades. First preference for new hires will go to Calexico residents, many of them former farm workers.

Pawel asked me a few general questions about "gay marriage." What your letter did not address is the chief grievance we expressed, namely Pawel's January 8, 2006 claim that, "The next day in Sacramento, a gay-marriage bill passed the Senate. Sponsors attributed key votes to public support from the UFW and the union's aggressive lobbying of Latino lawmakers. While the legislators were approving gay marriage, farm workers at the country's largest table grape company were rejecting the UFW."

Although the UFW is proud of its stand for AB 19, the marriage equality bill by Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), the union did not lobby anyone. UFW Southern California Political Director Christine Chavez last year took a leave of absence from the union to work full time with Equality California, one of the bill's principal sponsors, organizing grass roots support for the legislation in the districts of key Latino lawmakers. UFW co-founder Dolores Huerta, who left the union several years ago, spent her time lobbying Latino legislators during the debate leading up to a crucial floor vote in the state Assembly.

The juxtaposition of these two subjects implied a diversion of efforts and resources from the Giumarra organizing campaign to lobbying for AB 19, for which Pawel offered no evidence. Pawel's story was wrong because she never asked the UFW about these events surrounding lobbying for AB 19.

Pawel asked several questions about Bruns Belmont, the pre-fab assembling firm. But she never asked about "the UFW undercutting] another union to sign up construction workers" or having "forfeited the right to boycott supermarkets" as a result. If she had, we would have been able to convincingly respond.

Of course, your letter ignored the overwhelming majority of our grievances, just a few of which follow:

The main premise of the series--that the UFW is "failing to organize" farm workers--is directly contradicted by reporting from no less than 22 Los Angeles Times reporters and two columnists between April 25, 1994 and September 23, 2005. These stories chronicle substantial UFW organizing, election, strike and boycott activities plus new union contracts and legislative victories for farm workers. Did all those Times reporters get it wrong or make it up?

The extreme cherry picking of the facts by Pawel, such as when she described the National Farm Workers Service Center as an organization that has built "affordable housing in San Francisco and Albuquerque [and] own[s] a top-ranked radio station in Phoenix." That statement grossly misrepresents the work that the service center does, including not one but eight radio stations in farm worker communities, and the great majority of the low income housing being located in rural, farm worker areas.

Claiming the UFW is no longer "making elections and contracts its primary focus" (despite extensive reporting to the contrary by Times reporters, including Pawel, up through and including last summer) and denigrating the UFW?s highly successful associate member organizing campaign.

Describing the Farm Worker Institute for Education & Leadership Development as a group that "today offers two English classes; although farm workers attend for two hours each evening after work, the classes always have long waiting lists" when Pawel herself attended four such classes on one evening alone--and when FIELD has graduated more than 6,000 farm workers in recent years. Radio Campesina devotes a minimum of three hours daily to educational programming.

Falsely limiting her description of extensive interactive educational programming by the three-state, eight-station Radio Campesina network to "one weekly call-in show on health issues hosted by a Bakersfield doctor who has paid the station rates as high as $300 an hour for the time." Radio Campesina devotes a minimum of three hours daily to educational programming.

The Times' most recent article is yet another example of why we feel we have not gotten a fair shake. In addition to the hook for the story being very thin (i.e. that state and federal officials are looking into whether to look into the issues raised in your series), Pawel did not quote or even paraphrase the comment she was given in writing by the UFW for the story, instead paraphrasing another comment offered for another story on another subject. I don?t know whether that is just sloppy journalism or something more, but like the rest of your recent coverage of us, it certainly is not fair.

Sincerely,

Arturo S. Rodriguez
President
United Farm Workers of America


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