In recent months, Fresno School Board President Brooke Ashjian has called Fresno Bee education reporter Mackenzie Mays, one of our Center’s 2017 California Fellows, “ministress of propaganda,” “#mysoultroll,” “Mackenzie ‘fakenews’ Mays” and “#cutandpastemays.” In a radio interview, he likened her behavior to that of a “child sex predator.” He denounced her on talk radio and published her work phone number on Facebook, urging others to chime in.
In doing so, he drew a page or two from the playbook of the man he staunchly supported for president, Donald Trump. Like Trump, he turned to Twitter for his very personal insults.
Trump, as all news junkies know, has singled out individual reporters and launched sweeping broadsides against all media. Now, it seems, these tactics are going local. In some instances, the hostility to the Fourth Estate has escalated into violence, a trend documented by the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, which has recorded 31 physical attacks to date this year on journalists around the country and 20 incidents in which a reporter’s equipment has been seized or damaged.
What prompted this fusillade of angry rhetoric in Fresno?
Mays has been reporting for nine months, as a USC Center for Health Journalism California Fellow, about teen pregnancy. She’s also looking at how Fresno Unified teaches sex education and what teens know and think about the subject. The issue is especially important in California’s San Joaquin Valley where, as Mays notes, teen birth rates are still high despite statewide and nationwide declines. Six of the 10 counties with the highest teen birth rates in California are located in the Valley.
The series, called “Too Young?,” has succeeded despite all the attacks, said Mays, because “it has started a city-wide conversation about sex education — a bigger focus on the issue than we ever expected.”
Jim Boren, the Bee’s executive editor, said the “manufactured controversy” serves to divert attention from the real issue — the region’s high teen pregnancy rate. “We believe this issue must be discussed openly by our community so that we all can work together to find solutions.”
This is a story where context is important. The San Joaquin Valley is a region with a history of resisting comprehensive sexual health instruction. A group of parents sued nearby Clovis Unified several years ago over its abstinence-only sex ed curriculum; one instructional video “compared a woman that was not a virgin to a dirty shoe.”
Mays’ series opens with the story of a young woman, pregnant at 14:
A school counselor said she should skip eating lunch in the cafeteria to avoid the crowd — and the gossip. She was told to wear extra layers to hide her belly bump, despite Fresno’s scorching heat. Near the end of the 2013 school year, it was recommended she transfer to an alternative school for adults.
“It was like I was contagious. Because I was pregnant, they thought I was going to be propaganda for the other girls,” Pacheco said. “They didn’t want me there. My counselor told me to leave, so I left.”
As she began her reporting last March, Mays sought to find out whether Fresno Unified was complying with the mandates of the California Health Youth Act, a 2016 law that requires school districts to offer medically accurate and unbiased sexual health instruction, including lessons on birth control and abortion, and to teach LGBT-inclusive sex education.
Ashijian’s attacks against Mays began when she asked him about his views for an Aug. 4 article. Parents are allowed to opt out their children from sex ed, and Ashijian has always done so.
His quoted response to Mays' questions led to calls for him to resign. The district he oversees quickly put out a statement supporting inclusivity for all students:
Here's what he said:
"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’s most persistent criticism focuses on Mays’ efforts to survey Fresno high school students about what they learned in sex ed. She embarked on the survey with the encouragement of our Center — which provides mentoring and a grant to reporters and news outlets willing to try their hand in the emerging arena of “engaged journalism.” Her engagement goal was to elevate the voices of young people in a conversation that largely excludes them.
“The survey was a way to allow teens to speak for themselves, confidentially, about what they’re learning about sexual health,” said Mays. “As education reporters, we’re always writing about students, but often aren’t able to allow them to lead the discussion.
A majority of the survey questions asked if they had learned specific lessons now required by state law, and the results showed they hadn’t. For example: nearly 90 percent said they had not learned LGBT-inclusive sex ed, and nearly 75 percent had not learned about abortion – issues that are explicitly required by the new sex ed mandate.
Unable to stop Mays from reporting on the topic — and the controversy he engendered — Ashjian has launched an attack on those in the district who gave permission to Mays to survey students and on the critics who have called for him to resign as board president.
Ashjian, whose background is Armenian, compared his critics to the Ottoman Turks who carried out the Armenian Genocide. And at a recent School Board meeting, he went after the district administration that permitted Mays to survey students. He tried unsuccessfully to enact rules that would have weakened the superintendent’s powers and strengthened his. He made this move after the superintendent publicly shared his support for “anything we can do to educate kids to help themselves.”
Mays, while shaken by the attacks, continued her engagement efforts. She set up “listening posts” across the city, where teens could anonymously record their thoughts. She also hosted discussion groups, aiming to expand the conversation to some of the Bee’s more rural communities.
At the Central California Women’s Conference, Mays asked women what they wish they would have learned about sexual health when they were younger by writing their thoughts down and allowing the Bee to feature them in a photo gallery.
“We tried reporting in ways we never had before with one main goal: to listen to our youth,” she said. “Despite very public discouragement from an elected official, we carried on, and I’m glad we did.”
No one likes to be the brunt of one of the Trump Administration’s favorite tactics, or what Gizmodo journalist Tom McKay calls “smearing the messenger.”
Just as legions of journalist fact-checkers have been trying to expose Trump’s misstatements, Mays and her editors have been busy countering all the false accusations about her reporting.
“I think most reporters have dealt with a source who is unhappy with the public response to their words and takes that out on the messenger, but I had never had a source flat out say that I fabricated quotes or call me ‘fake news,’” Mays told us. “It’s hard because I love my job and this city, and there were attempts to diminish my work and make me a part of the story, which distracted from the point of all this, which was to shed light on a very serious health crisis.”
Boren, her boss, sees this as a defining moment for a free press. “We are committed to public service journalism and holding our elected leaders accountable. We will continue on our mission, and have never considered pulling back because some critics don't like the facts that we expose in our reporting.”
As we see it, a Central Valley school board president tried to discredit a local reporter with ugly personal attacks. Instead, he gave his critics a megaphone and showed the Fresno community just how much more work needs to be done to bring about more tolerance for LGBTQ youth and to reduce teen pregnancy.