Earlier this week, in a story picked up by local television stations and both major Seattle dailies, eastside Rev. Ken Hutcherson announced he was launching a nation-wide boycott of Microsoft, Boeing, Hewlett-Packard, and other companies that are supporting Washington's gay civil rights bill. Here's an excerpt from the Associated Press story that ran all over the nation:
The Rev. Ken Hutcherson, pastor of Antioch Bible Church in the Seattle suburb of Redmond, said he would formally issue the boycott Thursday on the conservative radio show Focus on the Family.
It would have been a big deal for Rev. Hutcherson to appear on James Dobson's Focus on the Family radio show, which is part of the powerful religious right media machine and reaches nearly 9 million people across the country each week. Well, Thursday came and went with no sign of Rev. Hutcherson on Dobson's national broadcast, which instead explored the hot tactic of "Confronting Abortion Through Prayer." What happened?
I called Focus on the Family's headquarters in Colorado Springs, and found the people there very reluctant to explain why Rev. Hutcherson hadn't been on Dobson's national show as promised in the AP article. They did tell me, however, that Rev. Hutcherson was allowed to record a "drop-in" for the radio stations in Washington State that carry Dobson's program. A "drop-in" is a short segment that can easily be added by local radio stations to the beginning of a pre-recorded broadcast like "Confronting Abortion Through Prayer." Could I listen to the Washington "drop-in"? The answer from Dobson headquarters: No.
So I tried one of the local AM radio stations here in Seattle for a copy of Rev. Hutcherson's "drop-in," and in short order I found Keith Black, the news director for KCIS radio, a local "Christian Inspiration Station" (AM630) that has fewer than 50,000 listeners.
Black played the "drop-in" for me over the phone, and it began with Tom Minery, the Vice President for Public Policy at Focus on the Family, telling listeners that he had "a special announcement for all of our listeners in the great state of Washington" about something that would be happening in the state senate "today."
Did the announcement have anything to do with a national boycott? No. And was anything happening on the gay civil rights bill in the state senate on Thursday? No. The bill hadn't even been taken up in the senate yet.
At this point, I had a question for the Associated Press:
What kind of nation-wide boycott launches on a few local radio stations in Washington State, and fails to even tell listeners a boycott is going on?
It was beginning to seem that Rev. Hutcherson, a very skillful media manipulator, had tricked the AP into giving his "boycott" the kind of national audience that even his buddy Dobson wasn't willing to provide.
* * *
The rest of the four-minute "drop-in" consisted of Rev. Hutcherson telling listeners to call certain Washington State senators (Republican Bill Finkbeiner of Redmond, Democrat Marilyn Ramsussen of Yelm, and Democrat Mark Doumit of Aberdeen). "Call these senators and let them know we are against this bill," Rev. Hutcherson said, warning that the bill was on a fast-track. Then Minery (incorrectly) told listeners that the bill is a "most significant matter that will be voted on today in the state capitol."
And of course there were Rev. Hutcherson's standard complaints about the gay civil rights struggle being compared to the black civil rights struggle, the standard religious right language of "special rights," and warnings about Washington State becoming a "mecca" of gay marriage as a result of the bill (which has nothing to do with gay marriage).
In sum: False information in the radio spot, false information in the AP report (which was picked up by The Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer among others), and all of it adding up to another media manipulation victory for Rev. Hutcherson.
I wondered: Does this "national boycott" actually exist?
* * *
I picked up the phone and called Rev. Hutcherson, who immediately blamed the Associated Press.
"The AP was wrong," Rev. Hutcherson told me. "I never said I was going to announce a boycott today."
I asked: So when will you announce your national boycott?
"I will let you know, Eli," Rev. Hutcherson said. "I will let you know."
* * *
The next morning, I called Rachel La Corte, the AP reporter who wrote the story in which Rev. Hutcherson originally promised he would be leading a "national boycott" of companies supporting Washington's gay civil rights bill. I asked her:
Did the AP get its facts wrong?
"I stand by the reporting in my story," La Corte replied.
She'd talked to Rev. Hutcherson on Thursday, after I had reported on The Stranger's blog that Rev. Hutcherson had failed to appear on Dobson's radio show as promised. Here's how she summed up that exchange to me: "He insists that I misunderstood him. I don't feel that I misunderstood him."
* * *
La Corte told me that before she spoke to Hutcherson for the first time about the boycott story on Monday, Jan. 16, "He'd been trying to get ahold of me all weekend to let me know something he was going to do." When they finally connected, he told La Corte about his boycott plan. She asked when he was going to announce the boycott, and, according to La Corrte, Rev. Hutcherson replied:
"I'm going to be on the Focus on the Family show on Thursday."
Which was misleading, considering he was only going to be on the Washington "drop-in," and even on the "drop-in," wasn't going to mention anything about a boycott. Could Rev. Hutcherson's vague language to the AP reporter have been a deliberate attempt to mislead her into giving him some national press?
"I'm not going to go into what his motives were, and what his intentions were," La Corte told me. "I'm just standing by this story."
I told her this raised an interesting question: When does a "national boycott" begin to exist? When Rev. Hutch promises the AP one is coming? When the AP reports that one is coming?
"We find the show secondary to his announcement on Monday," La Corte told me. "Hundreds of millions of AP readers read that story across the country, so in essence, it was announced at that time."
Here's something else that was announced at that time, via the AP story, and was now beginning to sound a little fishy:
Hutcherson said he has the support of several national organizations, including the Family Research Council, Southern Baptist Convention and Focus on the Family. Several of those organizations' offices could not be reached after hours Monday.
Had La Corte heard back from the FRC or the Southern Baptists about whether they were, in fact, supporting this "national boycott"? She told me she hadn't yet.
Would the AP be taking another look at the boycott to see if it was real, now that it had been announced to "hundreds of millions" of readers? While she wouldn't give an absolute yes or no, La Corte did tell me:
"That's something that we may end up doing a story on — talking to all of these groups again to see where they stand."
* * *
I figured that kind of fact-checking was something I could do immediately, so after I got off the phone with La Corte I began dialing the organizations Rev. Hutcherson claimed were backing his boycott.
And as I talked to them, the list of incorrect things that Rev. Hutcherson had told the AP just kept growing.
Jill Martin, spokeswoman for the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, told me that the SBC was not backing Rev. Hutcherson.
"We have no record of the SBC having a position on the boycott," she said.
I asked Martin why Rev. Hutcherson would have told the AP that the Southern Baptist Convention was backing him when it wasn't.
"I don't know," she told me. "I think that you need to talk to Pastor Hutcherson and his church about his comments."
Next I called Amber Hildebrand, a spokeswoman for the conservative Family Research Council, who told me that FRC was not backing Rev. Hutcherson's boycott.
"Hutcherson is a good friend of FRC," Hildebrand said. "FRC opposes laws protecting people based on the language of 'sexual orientation.' But FRC is not participating in the boycott. We don't participate in any boycotts."
That left only Dobson's Focus on the Family, which, it seemed to me, had already indicated its disinterest in Rev. Hutcherson's message by shunting him onto the Washington "drop-in" and keeping him off Dobson's national broadcast.
Still, I wondered whether Focus on the Family was perhaps supporting the boycott in spirit, if not with national airtime. I called Gwen Stein, who works in the public relations department at Focus on the Family's headquarters in Colorado Springs. She very nicely told me that a representative of her department would be happy to call back and answer my question, if such a person could find the time to do so before the close of business in Colorado today.
Now, I don't think it's a difficult matter for an organization like Focus on the Family to determine whether it supports a national boycott of several major American corporations several days after said boycott has been announced by the Associated Press.
But given five hours and several more calls from me to Stein, Focus on the Family proved unable to call me back and tell me whether it supported Rev. Hutcherson's boycott. Which I interpreted as "no comment." And which I also interpreted as a bad sign for the truth of yet another one of Rev. Hutcherson's claims to the AP.
* * *
Keeping in mind that Focus on the Family is not generally shy about letting people know when it does support particular political actions, let's tally up where Rev. Hutcherson's "national boycott," as he described it to the AP, currently stands:
Did Rev. Hutcherson announce the "national boycott" on Focus on the Family's national radio program on Thursday, as he told the AP he would? No. Does the AP agree with Rev. Hutcherson's claim that he was misquoted by the AP about the Thursday broadcast? No. Does the Family Research Council support Rev. Hutcherson's boycott, as he told the AP? No. Does the Southern Baptist Convention support Rev. Hutcherson's boycott, as he told the AP? No. Does Focus on the Family support Rev. Hutcherson's boycott, as he told the AP? No Comment.
That's some national boycott.