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Anyone looking at this political mailer from Trevor Ozawa’s City Council campaign might conclude that Civil Beat thinks his opponent, Tommy Waters, is corrupt and just another lapdog for Mayor Kirk Caldwell.
In fact, the only thing in this ad that comes from Civil Beat is our logo and red “Support Us” button. Even the photo is from somewhere else.
Quotes from news stories, editorials and letters to the editor are common fodder for political campaigns and these kinds of campaign flyers. We don’t have any say over a candidate lifting a comment from a story, just as a candidate wouldn’t have to approve us using a quote we pulled from a speech or a TV spot or any other source.
But usually the material is at least from the news organization that is prominently featured. In this case, even the line about Tommy Waters keeping quiet about using property taxes from rail — allegedly from a story we published on Oct. 27 — was nowhere in any Civil Beat story. Ever. In fact, Oct. 27 was a Saturday and we published no stories that day.
So I called Ozawa to ask how this flyer, which hit East Oahu mailboxes Wednesday, came to be. We chatted several times and he actually had a couple of interesting things to say. But because he hadn’t had a chance to really look into the problem I agreed not to quote him from those conversations. And besides, he promised to call me back.
What I got instead was an email that didn’t answer how or why this mailer was designed to look as if Civil Beat was the source of the anti-Waters quotes.
“We apologize to Civil Beat for any confusion, the quote attribution and layout in this mailer were done incorrectly,” was what he said in the email.
In keeping with the tradition of republishing flattering newspaper commentary, the flip side of the same flyer includes a lengthy passage from an Oct. 19 editorial in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.
That turns out to be a factual reproduction of that editorial — except for the part replaced by ellipses which actually said:
“As a critic of Mayor Kirk Caldwell, Ozawa can be too aggressive and contrarian at times, requiring him to pull back from ill-advised positions. But he works hard for his constituents and deserves another term.”
Tommy Waters, who is running against Ozawa for the District 4 council seat thrown into limbo when the Hawaii Supreme Court found election irregularities serious enough to require a new election, has also been sending out campaign mailers full of favorable coverage, including this column by Star-Advertiser writer David Shapiro:
But Waters includes a way for people to check out the full article if they are so inclined.
Jim McCoy, a longtime Hawaii newspaper and TV reporter before jumping to the public relations business, is Waters’ campaign spokesman now. He was surprised when he saw Ozawa’s flyer with Civil Beat’s purported criticism of his client. He called me to say he’d tried to find the referenced material on our site but couldn’t.
“It is crossing a line, I think,” McCoy said of the Ozawa flyer. “It’s built to imply that this is what a respected news outlet is saying. It’s shady, quite frankly.”
That’s what the opposition would say, of course.
But Neal Milner, a Civil Beat columnist and longtime Hawaii political commentator, is just as critical.
“It’s misleading, it’s outrageous and it’s pretty amateurish,” he says. “You look at this and it looks like Civil Beat said it.”
“This is beyond quoting out of context. It’s trying to make a link to the media that the media didn’t say.”
To be a bit more charitable, Milner speculated that this kind of sloppy campaign tactic happens when a candidate is caught off guard and hasn’t had as much time or money to wage a well-executed campaign. Ozawa had initially won the District 4 seat in the November election, only to be thrown a curve when the Supreme Court called for a do-over.
Ballots are expected to begin arriving in mailboxes soon and need to be returned by April 13, with some limited walk-in voting that day.
Generally, Milner said, quotes from newspaper stories or endorsements don’t make much of a difference in a campaign.
“But in a campaign like this where there’s no data and no real money, you just use it,” he said. “Because there’s no down side to using it.”
Civil Beat doesn’t endorse political candidates, but does allow candidates and their supporters to publish their own opinions in our “Campaign Corner” section. So more fodder for mailers and other campaign material.
We are sticklers about not letting politicians or special interest groups use our photos, which are copyrighted, and we do insist they cease and desist when we find out.
In 2016, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump used one of our photos in a campaign video that got widespread play on Facebook. When his campaign refused to pull it down, we complained to Facebook, which removed the video itself.
Earlier this year, House Finance chair Sylvia Luke took a photo of Gov. David Ige’s administrative director, Ford Fuchigami, off our website and had it reprinted on T-shirts that she handed out to her committee members. At the time, just before session started, Ige and legislative leaders were still coming down off a rough campaign ride in which Luke and other legislators publicly backed Ige’s opponent, Colleen Hanabusa, for governor.
Our photographer, Cory Lum, was certainly surprised when he showed up at the committee hearing to see his own photo of Fuchigami displayed on the House Finance Committee members. And Luke was most apologetic when I called her on it. She’d simply thought it would be a good way to lighten the tension with the governor’s office.
Who knows, it may have helped get business done a little more smoothly this legislative session, and who can complain about that?
The point is neither Luke nor Trump were trying to leverage the credibility of an independent news organization for their own political gain, as Ozawa apparently is doing.
As Milner puts it: “There’s clueless, there’s out and out incompetence and there’s purposely misleading. In (Ozawa’s) case it’s obvious its purposely misleading.”
During a crisis like this, it’s more important than ever to dig beyond the news, to figure out what government policies mean for ordinary citizens and how those policies were put together.
For the first time, Civil Beat has become a seven-days-per-week news operation, publishing new stories and a new edition each Saturday and Sunday as well as weekdays.
This is perhaps the biggest, most consequential story our reporters will ever cover. And at no other time in Civil Beat’s history have we relied on your support more. Please consider supporting Civil Beat by making a tax-deductible gift.