by David Taub

It’s one of Fresno’s more interesting media feuds, not involving me. It involves truth, trolling and not knowing when to let it go.

Fresno Unified school board president Brooke Ashjian’s war of words with Fresno Bee reporter Mackenzie Mays has spread from the newspaper, to talk radio, and now to outside media publications taking notice (click here and here).

Mays is the Bee’s education beat writer. The actions of Fresno Unified and Ashjian fall within her scope. Mays is also a fellow with the USC Center for Health Journalism. She chose to write where the two fields intersect: sex education at FUSD.

The Quote Behind the Feud

The catalyst of the Ashjian/Mays war started with a Bee story published August 4. In the quote that launched a thousand tweets, Ashjian said about LGBT-inclusive sex ed:

“My biggest fear in teaching this – which we’re going to do it because it’s the law – but you have kids who are extremely moldable at this stage, and if you start telling them that LGBT is OK and that it’s a way of life, well maybe you just swayed the kid to go that way,” Ashjian said. “It’s so important for parents to teach these Judeo-Christian philosophies.”

A little more than an hour later, Ashjian started the Twitter war, calling Mays “the new ‘ministress of Propaganda”:

Ashjian tweeted six more times that day, to include that he was taken out of context. To which Mays replied:

The interpretation of Ashjian’s comments also led to outrage amongst the LGBT community and their supporters. They have banged on the desk calling for sanctions – from his ouster as board president to his ouster from politics altogether. Ashjian has repeatedly told them to go pound sand.

The school board issued a news release saying they support all students. The community still wanted blood.

At the next board meeting after the Bee published the story, Ashjian apologized if he offended anyone. Later that month, he doubled down on his views, comparing his treatment to that of his ancestors, slaughtered in the Armenian Genocide.

The irony here is that Ashjian voted for Fresno Unified to include the LGBT sex ed, as mandated by state law. His comments to the paper aside, Ashjian just doesn’t have an anti-gay voting record. Unless you count the time he slipped out the door when the rest of the board voted on proclaiming October as LGBT History month. He told me later he needed a potty break.

The name-calling and trolling continued. Sound like a play from a playbook of a certain other politician? Ashjian has been an unabashed Donald Trump supporter and even led the Pledge of Allegiance at candidate Trump’s Fresno campaign stop in May 2016.

Ashjian appeared on radio shows with friendly hosts to continue his battles with Mays and the Bee. During one interview, he dissed the Bee’s credibility as a news organization.

It Goes Both Ways

Despite the insults and Twitter trolling, Mays continued to report the happenings the school board. Just as Ashjian can’t get Mays out of his mind, neither can Mays rid Ashjian from her skull. Ashjian’s comments find a way of popping up in many of the reporter’s stories.

In writing about alleged bullying of a lesbian student at Bullard High last month, Mays found a way to tie it to Ashjian’s comments despite the lack of any causational evidence. Including Ashjian in the story makes it sound like he is somehow at fault. That is a stretch.

Even her latest story about this week’s school board meeting, Mays’ main focus was a handful of community members speaking during public comment, continuing to lambaste Ashjian. The story failed to mention anything else, like the Superintendent’s update on the labor impasse or plans for a new elementary school campus.

The Sex Survey

One of Mays recent stories not only riled up Ashjian, but angered a conservative legal advocacy group.

The Pacific Justice Institute demanded an investigation, an apology and a retraction of Mays’ Oct. 20 story regarding Fresno Unified students and sex ed. Mays wrote about results from a sex survey presented to students. Once again, Mays referenced Ashjian’s LGBT comments.

The legal group says the district erred by allowing Mays access to the students, citing state and federal laws requiring parental permission.

“Convincing a school district to allow the violation of student privacy and parental rights in order to sell newspapers is a new low for the mainstream media.  These laws exist to protect family privacy, and they were blatantly disregarded.  We expect a genuine apology to parents and a genuine commitment to change in order for the District to avoid further legal consequences,” wrote Brad Dacus, president of PJI said in a news release.

PJI also demanded discipline against the district official who allowed Mays to conduct the survey of students, destruction of the “illegally-obtained survey results,” and revoking access “for reporters who have caused the District to commit privacy violations.”

Ashjian echoed those sentiments when we spoke (Mays declined to speak to me directly about this issue). He dismissed the fact that the district very well knew what Mays was doing and allowed her to distribute the surveys on campus.

I asked him why he feels the Bee should retract their story. Did they make up the answers? Was the reporting untruthful?

No, Ashjian said, it was because they broke the law to obtain them. My response? That is debatable, as in there is no debate. The Bee didn’t break the law. If there was a violation of California Education Code 51513 and 51938(c), it would be on the school district’s end, not the journalist’s.

Any time a journalist wants to report a story on a school campus, it is proper protocol to go through the district’s communication office. That is exactly what Mays did.

She provided an inter-office communication from Miguel Arias, the district’s chief information officer (and also publicly elected trustee of the State Center Community College District). The memo describes Mays’ request and subsequent approval.

Was it ethical to conduct a survey of such a sensitive topic without parental permission? Ashjian may have the moral high ground on that point. But ethical questions does not equate to breaking the law, nor merit a retraction.

The First Amendment can be a pesky constitutional tool. It protects the speech we love and the speech we hate.

Mays and Ashjian should listen to Elsa and just let it go. Ashjian needs to worry about solving the impending labor strike. Mays needs to continue reporting and know that not everything revolves around Ashjian’s controversial remarks.


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