A senator’s tweet prompts ‘smackdown,’ spotlight on Berkeley schools integration

Video still from “Coming of Age in the Civil Rights Era: Experiencing Berkeley Public School Desegregation 1964-68,” a project supported by the California State Library and Berkeley Public Library working with the Center for Digital Storytelling.

A tweet from a California senator about integration at Berkeley schools led this week to a Twitter “smackdown” between a right-wing website with White House credentials and Berkeleyside, and thence to a segment on KQED Forum.

It started when Sen. Kamala Harris mentioned her school days in Berkeley in a tweet, as a way of underlining the significance of the country’s next Supreme Court justice pick.

Harris’ recollection was an accurate account of her personal experience of ‘60s integration in Berkeley schools.  

But it wasn’t long before Jim Hoft, founder of the far-right publication Gateway Pundit, had accused Harris of lying. Offering photographs of students of various ethnicities captured in two Berkeley Unified yearbooks as evidence, Hoft stated that classrooms in Berkeley were already integrated in 1963, one year before Harris was born.

Everything about Harris’ tweet was a lie, he wrote in a July 10 article: “The next time Kamala harris plays the race card for sympathy she should try to get her facts straight.”

Hoft was wrong. The photos he published were from Berkeley High School which, as the city’s only standard public high school, has always been integrated. The junior highs and elementary schools, like the one Harris attended, had student bodies reflecting the segregated neighborhoods where they were located.

The article and associated tweets, many of them disseminated by bots and fake accounts, picked up steam on social media, and Berkeleyside Executive Editor Frances Dinkelspiel decided she couldn’t let Hoft’s assertion stand.

Thinking she would simply put the record straight with a single fact check, she posted a Berkeleyside tweet:

The tweet linked to an article on The Berkeley Revolution, a “digital archive of one city’s transformation in the late-1960s & 1970s” developed by UC Berkeley Professor Scott Saul and one of his undergraduate American Studies classes. One section included numerous stories, original documents and news clippings about the integration of Berkeley schools in 1968.

Hoft was not about to stand down. A couple of hours later he tweeted out that Berkeleyside was now lying:

Clearly, Hoft didn’t want to let facts get in the way of good story.

Berkeleyside reporter Natalie Orenstein, who covers the education beat, happened to be poring over historical materials relating to Berkeley Unified demographics, part of her research for a deep-dive story she is writing about the school district. While conscious that further proof was unlikely to make a difference now that Hoft’s smear had blown up — the article has been shared more than 15,000 times on Facebook alone — Orenstein snapped a photo of one of the documents in the pile on her desk and sent out a couple more tweets on the subject, the second of which included a photo of a table showing racial distribution in the Berkeley schools in the fall of 1963.

Berkeleyside had not expected, or hoped, to get into a smackdown with a pro-Trump website that is known for publishing falsehoods and spreading hoaxes. But the exchange did highlight the role local newspapers and websites can play in upholding facts and challenging inaccuracies at a local level — at a moment when the truth appears to be a devalued currency. Local journalists hold a trove of institutional and historical knowledge about their communities. In the cities and towns that have lost their local newspapers, that knowledge goes down with the ship. Accusations fly freely. Lies go unchallenged.

Berkeleyside’s outing by fact-checking prompted some shoutouts for local reporting, particularly — and not surprisingly — from journalists.  

In a tweet Brian Edwards-Tiekert, a radio host for KPFA, pointed, among other things, to the relatively high number of followers Berkeleyside has on Twitter, given the size of the community it serves:

While Alex Bazeley, an editorial intern at Curbed, used the whole exchange to encourage people to support their local news providers:

The sad truth, however, even in a week when Twitter announced it would crack down on fake accounts, is that the megaphone of websites like Gateway Pundit with its Trump seal of approval is much larger than that of a small local newsroom’s. Even if that newsroom values facts above reach.

The incident did have one positive outcome, however. After seeing the back and forth on Twitter, a producer at KQED Forum invited Berkeleyside onto the program Thursday morning to discuss the history of desegregation in Berkeley public schools. Berkeleyside’s Orenstein was joined by Erica Frankenberg, associate professor of education and demography at Pennsylvania State University, for a conversation with the radio show’s host, Michael Krasny. Listen to the KQED Forum segment.