NEWBURGH – For nearly a week, news outlets covered a “story” that turned out to be entirely fabricated. This highlights the crucial responsibility that journalism has in providing the truth and defending democracy.
For nearly a week this story received national notoriety for its heinous implications. It unnecessarily set people against one another. It led to countless hate letters, thousands of calls to the Crossroads hotel and created a hostile environment for asylum seekers. A week later, we have seen as the focus has shifted with revelations that the Yeril Israel Toney (YIT) foundation CEO, Sharon Toney-Finch, lied about veterans being displaced. We have also since learned that Assemblyman Maher got his misinformation (which he then disseminated) from Toney-Finch and it made national news.
As asylum seekers began to arrive at the Crossroads hotel in Newburgh, some local and national news outlets ran stories saying that 20 veterans were being displaced to accommodate asylum seekers. Amongst those who shared these stories as truth were Assemblyman Brian Maher, Senator Rob Rolison, Orange County Executive Steve Neuhaus and Executive Director of the Orange County of Chamber of Commerce Heather Bell-Meyer and Yeril Israel Toney (YIT) foundation CEO, Sharon Toney-Finch. Maher went on Fox news and the NY Post, Neuhaus went on to CNN and Rolisonpushed for a resolution to ban hotels from evicting veterans to accommodate asylum-seekers, even though no hotels were doing such a thing. Since news broke out last week that the story was entirely a lie, we have seen as many of these same individuals began scrubbing their social media content, deleting photos of themselves with Yeril Israel Toney (YIT) foundation CEO, Sharon Toney-Finch. However, for a week they were on news outlets and attending meetings in the community, adding fuel to the fire with misleading information that could have easily been fact checked and that too, is newsworthy. Their actions and negligence made an already challenging situation worse, and resulted in threats and harassment to the hotel, asylum seekers and public officials. Any hate crimes or harassment these asylum seekers face, falls on them for promoting false stories. Sadly, the damage has been done.
While these “stories” were being disseminated on the national stage, Orange County Legislator Genesis Ramos and myself were asking how 20 veterans could have been displaced! For anyone that has ever worked in human services, the number was unrealistic for one county, let alone one hotel. The fact that this story easily could have been fact checked, leads many of us to believe that it was intentionally used to fit a malicious narrative. Either those sharing this story were terribly calculated or incredibly incompetent.
Maher and others are now trying to shift the blame, saying they were “duped.” These are individuals who have worked with veterans and who could have easily made one phone call to find out the truth. They did not.
What is also unclear, is why the Executive director of the Orange County Chamber of Commerce, Heather Bell-Meyer, was leading the charge against asylum seekers, using a false story to pin vets against them. This comes amidst reports that the OC Chamber has taken a hardline approach against diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. It also comes at a time where businesses are struggling to find employees and record declines in population have been reported by Patterns for Progress.
An obvious question this raises is, why would Bell-Meyer, the executive director of the Orange County chamber be attacking a local hotel? Why is this director in Albany attending events and community meetings that are misleading veterans and supporting xenophobic bills against asylum seekers? How is this good for economic development? She should be held accountable; her actions are equally shameful and her involvement with the YIT foundation and Toney-Finch are being under reported.
We have also seen Neuhaus on CNN with Jake Tapper, sharing this false narrative about veterans being displaced. He too, could have asked any of his department heads and they would have told him it was a lie. He is not only creating a fake state of emergency that has no legal authority, but is also lying to the public about stories of veterans being displaced and hurting the reputation of a local hotel. Endangering vulnerable communities and adding fuel to the fire, while also diminishing the reputation of a local hotel, is certainly not honorable.
Rolison, as of this weekend was still promoting an award, he gave to the CEO of YIT and has yet to issue any apologies for promoting this false story. He posted on social media as the story was unfolding and chose to double down on the false narrative. Photos of him and the YIT founder remained until Monday, May 22nd. He spent a week pushing for a resolution to ban hotels from evicting veterans to accommodate asylum-seekers, even though no hotels were doing such a thing! Still, no apology for his xenophobic bill or for promoting a fake story.
The YIT founder and these public officials should all issue apologies for endangering and defaming a local business and an investigation should look into their involvement. And while I strongly believe the CEO of YIT must be held accountable, we must not lose sight of the fact that this story would never have gotten national notoriety if it wasn’t for those that promoted it. The American people, our county residents, our new neighbors, our local business, they all deserve better.
Thomas Jefferson once said, “I’d rather have newspapers and no government, than a government with no newspapers.” I fully agree. Now more than ever, we need journalists to report the truth and give us the facts without fear or favor, so that we all can know what is really happening. Our democracy depends on it.