In a February 9 opinion piece for FoxNews.com, Fox News' serial misinformer and mouthpiece for anti-gay hate groups Todd Starnes reported on allegations that high school students at Acalanes High School in Lafayette, California, were "bullied" by the school's Queer Straight Alliance during a class presentation. His report drew heavily from a press release by the Pacific Justice Institute (PJI), an anti-LGBT hate group with a history of fabricating horror stories to combat efforts to make schools welcoming for LGBT students. Starnes concluded his report by asking, "Has it really come to this, America -- forcing students to declare their allegiance to the LGBT agenda?"
The story spread across right-wing media, being featured on Breitbart, WND, MRCTV, and a number of smaller conservative outlets, as well as being shared thousands of times over social media.
The problem was that neither Starnes, nor any of the conservative outlets for that matter, did any further investigation or even waited for the district investigation before raising hell. If they had, this is what they would have found:
. . . in an email to Equality Matters, Acalanes High School District Superintendent John Nickerson thoroughly debunked the claims made by Starnes and PJI (emphasis added):
An examination of the program and classroom environment would suggest gross inaccuracies in the Pacific Justice Institute press release. It is not clear what other primary source Fox News used for their reporting, but their "opinion" piece on the program does not reflect what actually took place. Did not happen [quoted directly from PJI's press release]: ridiculed and humiliated / intimidation and interrogation / also had students line up. The peer led classroom activity was a carried out in a respectful environment and under the supervision of the classroom teacher. The activity focused on tolerance and acceptance, with an emphasis on anti-queer harassment and homophobia. It was intended to help students better understand the LGBTQ student experience. The program is in its 15th year at Acalanes High School and his been a model program and replicated throughout the region.
Media Matters also points out that Starnes and Fox News in particular shouldn't have relied solely on PJI for the story because the organization duped them before:
This is the second time Fox News and other conservative outlets have been duped by the Pacific Justice Institute. In 2013, PJI was caught promoting a fabricated story about a transgender student in Colorado harassing girls in the school bathroom - a claim that was also debunked by that school's superintendent. Starnes contacted Nickerson for his own piece, and Starnes quoted Nickerson as writing that the school was aware of the "concerns and allegations raised by two parents and the Pacific Justice Institute" and that it was "investigating the situation."
But rather than waiting for the investigation to be completed, Starnes uncritically parroted PJI's allegations.
Starnes is swiftly getting a reputation by some as an activist exposing anti-Christian persecution. However to many others, he is actually a sloppy reporter who allows his personal views to cloud his judgement when writing his pieces.
And he is leaving an paper trail of false allegations and bad work.
Just how long is that paper trail?
Tune in to this blog next week to find out.