Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Chobani Bites Back, Sues InfoWars For Smearing Idaho Operation, Refugees

[Cross-posted at Hatewatch.]

To hear the conspiracy-spawning hosts at Alex Jones’ InfoWars operation describe it, Chobani Yogurt and its Turkish-born owner are part of a vast plot to populate rural areas with disease-bearing and rape-prone criminal refugees from war-torn nations, driven out by the machinations of “globalists” who want to destroy America. Or something like that.

This, more or less, is the conspiracy theory that InfoWars contributors have been spinning for the past year or more, reaching hyperbolic stages in the past month as the site has produced segments with videos titled “MSM Covers For Globalist's Refugee Import Program After Child Rape Case” and “Idaho Yogurt Maker Caught Importing Migrant Rapists.”

This week, Chobani chose to fight back—in the courts.

Pointedly observing that Jones “is no stranger to spurious statements,” Chobani filed a lawsuit in Idaho District Court this week demanding $10,000 in attorney fees, full corrections on its false reportage and an apology from Jones and his InfoWars operation.

“The defendants’ conduct in this matter was extreme, outrageous and warrants punitive damages,” the lawsuit said.

The focus of the conspiracists’ fearmongering was Chobani CEO Hamdi Ulukaya, a native of Turkey who has donated heavily to liberal causes and is well known as an advocate for refugee resettlement in the United States and elsewhere. It opened its Idaho plant near Twin Falls, the nation’s second-largest such operation, in 2012. InfoWars and its army of true believers—who descended upon Ulukaya and other Chobani officials with a deluge of threats and hate mail through social media—claim that this is part of a nefarious scheme to drive “ordinary Americans” out of rural districts and replace them with brown-skinned foreign refugees dependent on their benefactors.

According to InfoWars, Ulukaya not only is bringing in crime in the form of child rapists to Twin Falls, he’s bringing disease in the form of tuberculosis.

The anti-refugee contingent had already been whipped into high dudgeon in the Magic Valley in preceding years over its longtime refugee program by a steady drumbeat of Islamophobia engendered with the help of various extremist anti-Muslim organizations, culminating in the open involvement of armed “III Percent” militiamen in anti-refugee protests.

However, the hysteria whipped into high gear in the summer of 2016 when three refugee boys sexually assaulted a five-year-old in an apartment-complex laundry room, and the story hit local news media, and then went viral. The ensuing sensational news reports—amplified by screeching headlines at right-wing outlets such as Drudge Report and Breitbart News—described the assault as a “rape” and the boys as rapists. Some of the accounts claimed that the boys pulled a knife on the girl; others claimed they were from Syria.

However, as Michelle Goldberg explored in a definitive report on the case for Slate, the facts are much more complicated. There was no rape involved; one boy inappropriately touched the girl’s genitals. There were reportedly other acts involved in the assault that were similarly appalling but did not constitute rape. The boys were from Eritrea and Iraq, not Syria. And there was no knife.

Nonetheless, InfoWars’ reports on the case consistently described it as “the Idaho rape case” and described the boys as rapists. Contributor LeeAnn McAdoo also described Chobani as “the target of a lot of anti-refugee anger. People say that the factory there and other local businesses are linked to the refugee program, because the existence of the refugees as labor is needed to fuel Chobani.”

The three boys, ages 14, 10 and 7, pleaded guilty to committing felonies in the assault earlier this month.

Host David Knight kicked off the reportage on the case in 2016 by describing it as “a story of an unbelievable takeover of our country. It’s not just refugees coming in and taking blue-class factory jobs, or middle-class jobs with H1-B visas. No, they’re coming in and they’re taking over our entrepreneurship. They’re taking over American businesses. They’re taking that role and shutting us down, using their connections in Washington.”

The attacks on Chobani led to a deluge of threats against the company and its founder. Social-media sites were flooded with calls for a Chobani boycott, as well as memes attacking Ulukaya, claiming he was “going to drown the United States in Muslims and is importing them to Idaho 300 at a time to work in his factory.” Twin Falls Mayor Shawn Barigar was subjected to death threats when InfoWars and other sites began suggesting he was part of a “government coverup.”

Knight later repeatedly claimed the refugees were responsible for a rise in disease in the area: “They have a five hundred percent increase in tuberculosis,” he told the InfoWars audience. “That is another one of the costs, along with $54 million dollars from the local and state community. That’s the cost to the taxpayers.”

Knight’s claim was based on a wildly distorted report from Breitbart News that “TB Spiked 500 Percent In Twin Falls in 2012, As Chobani Yogurt Opened Plant.” The Idaho Department of Health shortly thereafter explained that, while seven refugees with tuberculosis had indeed been admitted to the program, none of them had a contagious form of the disease.

Nonetheless, Knight repeated the charge last week, after CBS’s 60 Minutes had featured an interview with Ulukaya: “So the report from the hill said that Breitbart at the time had said that the plant had brought not only refugees but crime and tuberculosis—but of course, [sardonically] that was just fake news. Remember when we heard the reports of that five-year-old special-needs girl who was raped? Everybody said, ‘Aw, that was just fake news. That’s false.’ But now of course we have seen them admit to sexually assaulting five-year-old girl, getting their plea deal done last week.

“And so now it’s time for CBS’ 60 Minutes to let’s sweep all that under the carpet and let’s revitalize the image of Chobani Yogurt.”

As Jennifer Patterson, project director for the federal Partnership for Refugees, explained to the Idaho Statesman, Chobani and similar companies working with refugees are not exploiting them.

“It’s the exact opposite,” Patterson said. “These companies are looking to provide resettled refuges with the ability to live happy and productive lives. There’s never any malicious talk about getting them on the cheap.”

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