What began as a joke during a Jan. 30 Arizona House of Representatives floor session became a serious proposal advocating a holiday for “white people” by multiple media outlets, misinforming the public of the true context of the comment.
Rep. Richard Miranda, D-Phoenix, proposed an official holiday for Latinos, which was debated among representatives, and ended with a statement by Rep. Cecil Ash, R-Mesa.
Ash said he was fully supportive of Miranda’s proposed Latino holiday and added that the white population was projected to become a minority in 2050.
“I just want (the Latino community) to assure me that when we do become in the minority, you'll have a day for us,” Ash said.
The statement was followed by audible laughter from the representatives in the chamber, many of whom later said they perceived the statement as a joke rather than a serious proposal.
Ash said the heated discussion of Miranda’s proposal between Republicans and Democrats created a “hostile” situation that he did not appreciate on the floor, leading him to attempt to lighten the mood.
“I made that comment to kind of diffuse what I thought was a little bit of a tense situation,” Ash said. “I anticipated that what I was going to say might get some chuckles.”
Ash’s comment was broadcasted by Arizona’s CBS 5, and then picked up by news outlets such as The Huffington Post and Fox Nation's blog sections. Ash said these outlets made it seem like his statement was sincere, when it was meant as a joke.
“(CBS 5) started out by connecting me with Jan Brewer's rudeness to the president and with (Senate Bill) 1070 and other embarrassments for the state,” Ash said.
Ash said his joke was not intended as a precursor to actually proposing a holiday for white people.
“It was more or less to imply that someday we're going to be in the minority, so we should treat minorities with respect,” Ash said.
ASU journalism ethics professor Tim McGuire said in controversial situations where people claim they were “just joking,” reporters should apply proper skepticism.
However, if first-hand witnesses indicate they believed it was a joke, a journalism ethics problem could exist if media outlets make the comment appear to be serious.
“If in fact the reporters who saw the incident ignored the fact that the chamber was laughing, that's a terrible thing, and they should have told readers,” McGuire said. “They should have been very clear about that, that everybody in the chamber regarded it as a joke.”
Rep. Jack Harper, R-Surprise, and Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Phoenix, were both present when Ash's comment was made and agreed they had perceived it as a joke.
“The room was a little tense, and Rep. Ash, who is fairly level-headed, tried to break the mood,” Gallego said. “We knew that it was in jest and that it was not at all intended to insult the Hispanic community.”
Ash said the media's portrayal of issues such as his joke could sometimes be skewed to meet an agenda or dramatized.
“The general public is in some ways led by the media and tends to look at issues as black and white, all or nothing,” Ash said. “Many issues are not that easily defined.”
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