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Campaign Makes False Claims About Crime Rate

Backers of sales tax hike to pay for police use fake headlines on website.

October 19, 2004|Jeffrey L. Rabin | Times Staff Writer

The campaign for Measure A, a sales tax increase to raise money for more police in Los Angeles County, used fake headlines and an article from an Arkansas newspaper to make the false claim on its website that the crime rate in Los Angeles is at a record high.

The opening page of the campaign website at midday Monday showed a newspaper article with the headline: "Crime rate at an all-time high. More police needed on streets." Next to that image appeared another headline: "L.A. Streets no longer safe for children."

Both the headlines were made up and the article, which appeared last year in the Leader newspaper of Jacksonville, Ark., was not about crime. It was about transportation planning in the Little Rock suburb.

Major crime in Los Angeles County and its cities has fallen from the record levels in the early 1990s, according to FBI statistics.

Rick Taylor, the consultant running the advertising campaign for Measure A, initially defended the use of the two headlines and article, saying they were meant merely as "a graphic" to illustrate the crime problem and not intended to be taken as actual news.

"It's not a big deal," he said, adding, "it's not abnormal."

Taylor, however, pulled the material from the website.

He later apologized for the campaign's use of the misleading headlines and article.

"It was a mistake we made internally. It's a campaign error," he said. "I accept full responsibility. We removed it as soon as it was brought to our attention."

Before the opening page was removed, the image with the false headlines faded into a second page with Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca and LAPD Chief William J. Bratton urging a "yes" vote on the proposition on the November ballot.

Baca said the campaign had missed a chance to press its case with voters. "This is taking an opportunity to clearly give our factual message and distorting it," he acknowledged. "Crime is not at an all-time high, but it is very high. That's all you need to say."

The sheriff sounded distressed in a telephone interview and said, "I should have checked that website before they ever put that out."

FBI crime statistics show that there were 395,963 major crimes reported in all of Los Angeles County during 2003. Those figures include murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, vehicle theft, larceny and arson. By contrast, a decade earlier in 1993, there were 652,939 major crimes reported in the county.

Baca and Bratton are leading backers of the ballot measure, which would raise the sales tax from 8.25% to 8.75%, if two-thirds of county voters approve. An estimated $560 million would be raised in the first year to pay for up to 5,000 additional police officers.

Nancy Snow, an assistant professor of communications at Cal State Fullerton, said campaign consultants know that readers and viewers are often busy and don't read beyond the headlines.

"You try to grab eyeballs by going to an extreme," she said.

Snow said that misrepresenting the facts is common in campaigns, adding that voters must be critical thinkers when watching the news or commercials.

"This is sort of Propaganda 101," she said.

John Hofheimer, a veteran reporter whose byline appeared with the article on the Measure A website, said he has never written about crime in Los Angeles nor spent much time here.

"I strive to be as accurate as I can in what I write," he said in a telephone interview. "I don't like the idea I've been sort of misrepresented in that fashion."

Of his brief moment in the spotlight in the nation's entertainment capital, he said, "If this is my 15 minutes of fame, I've been ripped off."

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