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Shawn Vestal: Breitbart and the ‘devastation’ of Twin Falls

It’s a perfect model for how to sell a false story.

Exaggerate wildly. Manipulate statistics egregiously. Double down on lies. Apply grotesque, racist stereotypes. When people who know the facts tell you you’re wrong, accuse them of being part of a globalist conspiracy. Bonus points if you can get an alternative-universe lawmaker or two, like Idaho’s Heather Scott, to spread your tale.

That was the pattern of propaganda peddled by the alt-right echo chamber Breitbart News last year in its “coverage” of a ginned-up “Muslim refugee crisis” in Twin Falls, Idaho. Breitbart co-founder and former chairman Steve Bannon is perhaps the most influential aide to President Donald Trump right now, and the Breitbart coverage of Twin Falls is an object lesson in the kind of broad-brush thinking now operating in the West Wing: Muslims are dirty criminals, even their children are terrorists, and they’re being imported by Obama to take away jobs from Americans.

And that’s before you even get to the comments section.

“The Muslim migrants have devastated Twin Falls,” wrote the anti-Muslim gadfly Pamela Geller at Breitbart in August. “The refugees in this community are often living in squalor; Twin Falls has repeated bedbug epidemics at their low-class motels. A Twin Falls resident … told me about the wake of the Muslim migrant invasion: trashed apartment buildings, cockroach infested with broken lighting in the stairwells, broken stair banisters, and more.”

This is not a description of Twin Falls that sounds familiar to Shawn Barigar, the city’s mayor.

“Surreal is the word I’ve been using,” Barigar said this week in an interview about the town’s experience in the Breitbart spotlight. “It really painted a false picture of the community.”

Barigar supports immigration and refugee resettlement in southern Idaho, and says it has contributed to the economy and culture of the region for decades.

“We have been a welcoming and humanitarian community since the 1980s, and all of a sudden it became the focus of bigotry and hatred,” he said.

Breitbart and other far-right outlets seized on Twin Falls starting in July, with a story about sexual assault by a child against a young girl that it turned into a screaming scandal about a Muslim “gang-rape at knifepoint.” The case involved inappropriate touching and was videotaped by an older child on his phone, and was clearly a troubling, unfortunate incident. The boys were prosecuted, but case details were sealed. Two of the boys involved were refugees.

A small group of anti-immigrant activists in Twin Falls helped fuel the coverage, raising hell at council meetings, fueling conspiracy talk and feeding the Breitbart mill. From the very start, the site got key details of the story wrong and inflamed the Muslim angle, and it continually got them wrong in ever-more sensational directions – according to police, prosecutors and public officials in Twin Falls.

Breitbart dispatched a reporter, Lee Stranahan, to Twin Falls, where he filed a number of reports wallowing in sordid details, picking fights over minor matters, testifying at City Council meetings and giving interviews to the local media, and blasting press coverage of the whole charade.

“When you would talk to him, in his mind, everything he was printing was the truth,” said Greg Lanting, a city councilman and former mayor. “That was the scariest part – that he may have actually believed what he was saying was true.”

Stranahan defended his coverage in a combative interview Tuesday. “It was absolutely accurate,” he said, insisting that if someone like me questioned his reporting that I was defending what happened to the child and was morally depraved.

After months of coverage of Twin Falls, he appears to have moved on, finding a frightening Muslim angle in the recent nationwide protests: “TERROR-TIED GROUP CAIR CAUSING CHAOS, PROMOTING PROTESTS AND LAWSUITS AS TRUMP PROTECTS NATION.”

After the initial stories about the sexual assault, Breitbart kept at it in Twin Falls. Stranahan would later write about a second alleged sexual assault, this time by an adult refugee. Police dropped the charges in that case, which went unreported on Breitbart.

For several weeks, the site depicted Twin Falls as a blasted wasteland, a ruined landscape of decent white Americans devastated by dirty Muslim criminals. It delved into how many Twin Falls police officers are immigrants, finding it important to note that seven of the city’s 72 officers are resettled refugees from Bosnia Herzegovina, where 51 percent of the population is Muslim.

It hammered repeatedly on suspicions that a Chobani yogurt factory owned by a Turkish immigrant and backed by “the government” was behind a surge in bringing in cheap labor. It referred often to “waves” of recent refugees, of floods and surges in refugees – when in fact, Twin Falls has relocated about 300 refugees a year for decades now.

It peddled scurrilous nonsense like this: “TB SPIKED 500 PERCENT DURING 2012, AS CHOBANI YOGURT OPENED PLANT.”

That piece – which was not authored by Stranahan – was a particularly illustrative bit of “journalism.” Tuberculosis cases in Twin Falls did indeed jump by 500 percent that year – from one case to six cases. No connection to the yogurt factory. Then it went down to two, back up to four, and back down to one in the next three years. In other words: TB cases PLUMMETED BY 500 PERCENT AFTER CHOBANI OPENED PLANT.

“It just did not let up all summer,” said Barigar.

Barigar said that by the end of the coverage, the narrative that emerged was: “I personally as the mayor was getting money from the Obama administration to turn a blind eye to whatever Chobani wanted to do.”

To read the Breitbart coverage is to enter a world where the simple sight of a burqa is terrifying. It is to enter a world where the “other” is always dirty, dishonest and evil. It is to enter a world where there is no difference between a terrorist and a refugee and a Muslim child.

It’s a world that sounds a lot like the White House these days.

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