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How the National Media Gets the Filner Scandal Wrong

National media outlets swooped in to cover sexual harassment allegations against Mayor Bob Filner and brought a few misconceptions with them.

National news outlets eager to cover the fiasco surrounding Mayor Bob Filner have created several myths in the process.

Here’s some clarity on five of the most prominent ones we’ve come across.

1. This is just another political sex scandal.

Politico’s Alex Burns and others compared Filner’s sexual harassment allegations to other scandals involving Californian mayors on Twitter last week.

Here’s what Burns tweeted last Thursday:

Burn’s comment lumps Filner’s allegations of sexual harassment, with that of former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and former San Francisco Mayor (now the lieutenant governor) Gavin Newsom, both of whom had consensual affairs while in office. New Yorker web producer Caitlin Kelly made a similar connection in a Monday tweet, alluding to New York’s Eliot Spitzer and Anthony Weiner, who also had scandals while in office involving consensual behavior.

On Thursday, the Los Angeles Times also put the Filner allegations under the “sex scandal” umbrella in an editorial titled “The San Diego Sex Scandal,” which opens with an allusion to Bill Clinton’s sex scandal, then references to John Edwards, Spitzer and Weiner – all politicians whose scandals involved consensual interactions.  While the Times goes on to make a distinction between the scandals, Filner’s situation doesn’t warrant being called a “sex scandal” in the first place. The allegations are not that Filner is having some raunchy affair. Filner is accused of sexually harassing women, meaning his advances were not welcomed by the women involved.

2. San Diego mayors are always getting in trouble.

“Anchorman” movie references are always tempting for national reporters delving into San Diego politics. Slate’s Dave Weigel gave in to the urge on July 12 when he tweeted: 


Weigel doesn’t disclose what his threshold for scandal is, but in referencing a movie that hit theaters in 2004, he alludes to the pension scandal that erupted early in Dick Murphy’s second term and that led to Mayor Jerry Sanders assuming office in 2005.

But Weigel’s statement that every San Diego mayor since 2004 has been “embroiled” in a scandal doesn’t fit. While Sanders did inherit the fallout of the pension scandal, there is no consensus that the Sanders administration was consumed by it or any other scandal.

3. Filner is accused of sexual assault.

Politico also initially misreported the Filner news to the rest of the nation Friday, claiming Filner was facing allegations of sexual assault. They later corrected their story.

Filner is facing allegations of sexual harassment and potentially sexual battery; he hasn’t been accused of sexual assault.

4. Filner will be out of office soon.

The Washington Post’s political blog The Fix is convinced Filner is on his way out.

“The congressman-turned-mayor, who faces sexual harassment allegations and calls for him to step down, almost certainly can’t survive for much longer,” Sean Sullivan wrote.

Sullivan quotes a California Democratic strategist who emphasizes the dearth of supporters willing to stand by Filner.

This argument is problematic for a few reasons.

Filner, once referred to as “the Grand Canyon of assholes,” is as defiant as they come.

Exhibit A was Filner’s months-long refusal to sign a tourism marketing agreement approved by the City Council before he took office. The long-running drama included a court appearance and repeated impassioned speeches before the City Council. (In one case, Council President Todd Gloria actually turned off Filner’s microphone so a meeting could continue.)

And Filner has repeatedly emphasized he has no plans to resign. He demonstrated that Monday with his announcement of staffing shifts.

City rules also complicate matters.

The City Council can’t boot Filner from office. Only voters can – and even if they meet a recall’s high threshold for collecting signatures, the city provision guiding a recall election may even be unconstitutional.

One of America’s most stubborn politicians probably isn’t going away anytime soon.

5. Filner admitted to sexual harassment.

“Mayor Admits to Harassment, Will Speak at Sexual Assault Benefit,” declared a Wednesday headline on Jezebel, a women’s-issues blog.

That post describes Filner’s apology and suggests he’s “leveraging the negative media attention by attempting to deliver a keynote address at a benefit for sexual assault survivors.”

But Filner’s statements about the allegations have been confusing.

First, he said he “failed to fully respect women” and acknowledged he’s intimidated them at times.

A few days later, he declared himself a “hugger” in a KUSI interview and made this puzzling and somewhat disturbing statement to Univision: “The monster is inside me, which we’ll deal with.”

Still, those aren’t admissions. The mayor has repeatedly said he believes he’ll be vindicated in any sexual harassment investigations.

Alex Corey is a reporting intern and Lisa Halverstadt is a reporter at Voice of San Diego. You can contact them directly at alex.corey@voiceofsandiego.org and lisa@vosd.org.

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