Michael Tubbs vs 209 Times: A Stockton Battle : Invisibilia Yowei gets a tip about Russian trolls in Stockton, California and falls down a hole of swirling conspiracy theories. At the center is a scrappy, controversial website that has become one of the most popular sources of local news in town. Some say it's doing important investigative journalism while others say it's spreading hateful lies about progressive leaders. In part 1 of The Chaos Machine series, what happens when traditional local news runs out of resources and reporting the narrative of a community is anybody's game?

The Chaos Machine: An Endless Hole

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This episode is explicit.



From NPR, this is in INVISIBILIA. I'm Yowei Shaw.

NATISSE: I'm Kia Miakka Natisse.

SHAW: OK. So, Kia, you know how last year I reported a story in Stockton, Calif.?

NATISSE: Yeah, I remember.

SHAW: So today I got another story from Stockton, Calif.

NATISSE: (Laughter) You love it out there.

SHAW: I do. I just can't get enough. Basically, what happened was, while reporting my last story, I got this tip. Somebody told me that Stockton has its own version of Russian trolls.



SHAW: Exactly. I was like, sure. Whatever.


SHAW: Sounds like a conspiracy theory. But, of course, I put in a call or two...

JAKE TYLER: Hey, there she is.

SHAW: ...Which is how I ended up talking to this guy named Jake Tyler.

TYLER: How do I pronounce your name again?

SHAW: It's Yowei - Yowei.

TYLER: Yowei.

SHAW: Yes, Yowei. Like, no way with a Y.

TYLER: Is that Hebrew?

SHAW: (Laughter) No, that would be Yahweh. No, this is Chinese.

TYLER: Oh, it's Chinese.

NATISSE: Like, the sweetest and kindest correction.


SHAW: I'm on my journey, you know? So Jake works on political campaigns in Stockton. And when he first started out, he would go out, knock on doors for work. And then he started to notice something.

TYLER: I would hear 9/11 conspiracy stuff. I would hear things about chemtrails. One guy thought that the person I was out canvassing for had killed his dog because the government was poisoning pigeons downtown, and the dog ate a pigeon.

NATISSE: Which is just a crazy story. And I do not want his job.

SHAW: Yeah, I couldn't do it, either. The thing is, though, even Jake has his own set of freaky occurrences.


SHAW: Here's the story he told me. One evening last summer, he was at his house, and he decides to walk to the local corner store to get some smokes.

TYLER: And I was just walking there, and I noticed a car was kind of following me slowly. And I noticed it, like, turned around the corner, and then a guy dressed completely in black with a black face mask got out and punched me.

SHAW: Where'd you get punched?

TYLER: No, I barely - like, he didn't connect, I guess, is the words I'm looking for 'cause I moved back. He said, I guess you could take this as, like, a warning. And I said, for what? Who are you? And, like, he just got in his car and drove away.

SHAW: Huh.

NATISSE: Why is this tip so wild?


NATISSE: It's just, like, a bad hit man, poisoned dogs, conspiracy theories.

SHAW: Yeah. And Jake has no idea who did this to him. He doesn't know if it's just random people messing with him. Maybe it's somebody he crossed.

TYLER: I'll have no idea who - what that was about for the rest of my life.


SHAW: So spoiler - I wasn't unable to figure it out, either. But the more people I talked to in Stockton, the more weird things I kept hearing - whispers about some shadowy cabal, politicians involved in human trafficking, a child abuse cover-up in the schools and, the classic, rich developers controlling city politics.

NATISSE: That one I kind of believe (laughter).

SHAW: Yes, probably not that far from the truth. But what I probably heard the most about was a local website that bills itself as an independent, community-driven grassroots news source.





UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: What's really - quote-unquote, what's "really" going on here? I go on to 209 Times always. I'm on there, like, every day.

NATISSE: What's the 209? Why is it 209 Times?

SHAW: 209 is the area code for Stockton and the surrounding area.


SHAW: And the thing about this website is - some people in Stockton were telling me that 209 Times was doing important investigative journalism, while other people were saying 209 Times was spreading hateful lies about local leaders.

NATISSE: Really?

SHAW: From talking to people, this website, it seemed like both the source of a lot of conspiracy theories and also the subject of them.

NICHOLAS HATTEN: It's being funded by conservative movement underneath the table.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: I think if you keep everyone divided and you're running pay-to-play politics, you can control money and government contracts.

HATTEN: It's to prevent leaders of color from gaining influence.

JAMES WALSH: And I began to get the suspicion that these were plants. These were people dropped into our progressive community trained in workshops put on by the Mercers and the Koch brothers and the right wing. That's kind of my conspiracy theory.

NATISSE: Oh, my goodness. Yowei, what have you gotten yourself into?

SHAW: I have to tell you, I couldn't find any evidence to back those theories up. But obviously, I started trying to figure out what was going on. And at first, I thought this story was going to go, you know, the way we all kind of know. Like, misinformation - it's bad; we're still not sure what to do about it. But in Stockton, the more I looked into this website, the more I realized it doesn't quite fit into that neat box.


SHAW: It's, like, way messier, much more personal and not at all clear who exactly the villains are. If you look at the players, the emotions, the beefs, I feel like you can almost trace a map of how misinformation gets created and, like, how a website like this can end up overturning a city's power structure. And maybe not just in Stockton...

NATISSE: Oh, snap.

SHAW: ...Which is why I'm going to tell this story in three parts over the next few weeks. It is going to be a ride.

NATISSE: Yeah. You want to take it from here?

SHAW: Yeah. Let's start by going there...

Which way do I go?

...To Stockton.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Head west toward North Pershing Avenue.

SHAW: This city in the Central Valley of Northern California, built during the gold rush, then became an agriculture town.

It's a beautiful, blue, extremely hot day.

When I was there for my last story, I actually had a great time. You can see the foothills of the Sierra Nevada from the highway.

Oh, my gosh.

There are palm trees.

Now I feel like I'm in California.

The weather's warm.

There's a carniceria.

The ethnic food's on point.

Mi Ranchito cafe.

It is also a place that gets this really bad rap, where it makes sense that locals there would think there's a setup.


SHAW: It has a history of dirty politics, a city where low-income people of color have been failed again and again, whether it's the bankruptcy...


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Declaring bankruptcy. Stockton is the largest American city to seek protection from its creditors.

SHAW: ...Elected officials getting busted for run-ins with the law...


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The arrest earlier today of the mayor of Stockton, Anthony Silva.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: ...Include grand theft, embezzlement, embezzlement by a...

SHAW: ...Or just depressing statistics and a history of making the wrong kinds of lists - most poor, most dangerous, least educated and, weirdly, worst place for singles? The kind of place the rental car clerk at the airport warned me about visiting - true story - a reputation so bad that even the kids, they were told growing up to just get out as fast as they could.

MICHAEL TUBBS: I remember being in high school and reading headlines that said lowest in literacy, highest in crime. Why would you want to stay there?

SHAW: But can we also just abolish those lists?

TUBBS: They're terrible. No, you really internalize that as a young person.

SHAW: This is Michael Tubbs. You might know him as the first Black mayor of Stockton. But he's also got the distinct honor of being the No. 1 target of 209 Times for the last four years.

TUBBS: When people meet me and they get to talk to me and they see me, they're like, oh, my gosh, why are they lying on you?

SHAW: Outside Stockton, Michael's known as this rising Democratic star who has this gripping political origin story. He was raised by a single mom with his dad in prison, then went to Stanford on scholarship. But Michael's always had a complicated relationship with being seen as the special kid. He says it started in elementary school.

TUBBS: My pastor would call me up to give speeches or would always call - Michael, stand up.


TUBBS: And he would say something about me or say a positive word about my future in front of the whole congregation. It bred resentments. I was like, I didn't ask for this.

SHAW: Later in college, Michael started reading about structural racism.

TUBBS: What you're not going to do is hold me up and make all people feel bad because of the structural forces in their life; they have different outcomes.

SHAW: And then one day, Michael was interning at the Obama White House. He was in a meeting.

TUBBS: And my mother called me.

SHAW: His cousin Donnell had been shot at a Halloween party and died.

TUBBS: I remember going back and the conversation was about, like, the midterms, and I just thought it was so stupid. I was like, my cousin was just murdered; I don't care about no Tea Party.


SHAW: Michael decided he needed to go back to Stockton after college and help his hometown, to try to make a dent on the deep-rooted problems the old guard couldn't fix.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: At 22 years old, Michael Tubbs is making history.

SHAW: Michael runs for city council, and he wins.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Stockton's youngest city council member ever.

SHAW: Then in 2016, he runs for mayor...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Your new mayor of Stockton.


SHAW: ...And wins with 70% of the vote.




SHAW: And he takes what's usually a symbolic position in Stockton - you know, the mayor has one vote on city council, no executive power - and he turns it into a powerhouse of action.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: Stockton, Calif., once named the most miserable city in the U.S., is making a comeback.

SHAW: He starts a nonprofit and raises millions in private dollars for college scholarships...


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: The city of Stockton has received $20 million from the California...

SHAW: ...Launches a universal basic income project...


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #7: Stockton is the first city in the U.S. to experiment with universal basic income.

SHAW: ...Helps wrangle millions from the state for sustainable development and homelessness...


TUBBS: Reduce the number of people in our community who are experiencing homelessness.

SHAW: ...Inspires young people who left Stockton to come back home and roll up their sleeves to help.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: I definitely want to boomerang back here to Stockton.

SHAW: Stockton is getting press...


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #8: The city of Stockton has also taken on the cease-fire initiative.

SHAW: ...Positive stories...


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #8: It is now bouncing back.

SHAW: ...In the LA Times, New York Times, NPR.


TREVOR NOAH: Mayor Tubbs, welcome to The Daily Social Distancing Show.

SHAW: Which is why Michael, the media darling, wasn't stressed when he first heard about a negative story from 209 Times.

TUBBS: Yeah, it was my first month as mayor. And then my assistant, Cameron, came in and was saying, my stepmom showed me this. It was, like, some blog with typos, and the story was nonsensical. It was like - it was just weird.

SHAW: Michael clicked on the link, and he saw a story that criticized him for pushing to get funding for two costly new positions for the mayor's office. The story asked why he was hiring his friends and also, why did Michael need his own public information officer when the city already had one?

TUBBS: It was like, this doesn't make sense. And who cares? This is so dumb, like whatever.

SHAW: He says Stockton voters approved the positions. And, you know, criticisms of budget priorities - that's fair game. But it wasn't just that one story.


SHAW: The website kept posting about him and more outlandish stuff day after day, week after week. There was a story saying Michael had a full-time job in New York, another saying millions of dollars were missing from the nonprofit he started - which, by the way, both weren't true. And then Michael started hearing about memes, memes that 209 Times was posting about him. Probably the most infamous one is a riff on a Dave Chappelle character named Tyrone Biggums, whose persona is a crack addict. The meme superimposes Michael's face on a photo of Tyrone with the words, got any more of that taxpayer money? But Michael, he just brushed it all off.

TUBBS: These stupid memes. I mean, Black people are called crackheads all the time. I'm not shocked at that at all. That's American. And I'm like, who is reading this? Clearly, no one believes this is true.

SHAW: After the break, why Michael was so, so wrong.


SHAW: So here's a trick I learned for getting a politician to be more human in front of the microphone - just ask them about their best friend.

TUBBS: Like, he's just - he's Lange (laughter).

SHAW: Right.

TUBBS: It's annoying how nice this guy is. He's, like, the nicest guy.

SHAW: (Laughter).

TUBBS: And I'm nice, but no one would say I'm the nicest guy you've ever met. He's like an angel cherub person. I don't know. He's not real.

SHAW: Lange Luntao and Michael Tubbs met in high school at the city's youth advisory commission.

TUBBS: Yeah, we first met as, like, high school government nerds.

LANGE LUNTAO: I just found the video of it yesterday. We look like babies. It's hilarious.

TUBBS: But we weren't friends. I thought he was, like, too polished, very preppy. I don't know if he's real.

SHAW: Lange eventually won Michael over. And he helped him run for city council. And when Michael ran for mayor, Lange ran for school board, too. Their idea of a fun night, according to Lange, is sipping on beers and talking policy. Not kidding.

LUNTAO: We really like thinking about how government can be a tool for good and a tool for improvement. It's a very Leslie Knope, "Parks And Rec" (ph).

SHAW: When 209 Times started posting about Michael, he wasn't the only target. They also started posting about the clique that had formed around Michael - people like Lange, folks on the school board, the state assembly, the local Democratic Party, nonprofits, too. And at first, Michael's crew, they were pretty much like, whatever. Let's not fan the flame. Let's not legitimize this. Well, Lange, he dealt with it by making jokes.

LUNTAO: When we'd run into each other at events, it's like, oh, what'd 209 Times say about you last week? You know, like, same things, trying to say that I'm corrupt.

SHAW: But before we go any further, I need to give you a better picture of what 209 Times looks and feels like because how 209 Times works, Lange thinks it's ingenious and deliberate. He can break it down like a TV pundit. Like No 1., some of the coverage is positive.


LUNTAO: On Monday, you might see, hey, 209 Times is supporting a local business that we all love.

SHAW: There are cat memes, GoFundMes for funerals, shoutouts to high school students feeding the hungry.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: We are doing a food drive. As you can see right here is our...

LUNTAO: On Tuesday, it's some community member who has sent in a video of a fire in a dumpster, a literal dumpster fire.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: Downtown Stockton, homeless camp. They out here burning they garbage. That's one way to get rid of it.

SHAW: There are posts about fires around town, cars crashed into trees...


SHAW: ...A lot of videos sent in by community members.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: I'm shaking. Oh, my God.

LUNTAO: They're like, can you believe this is going on in Stockton?

SHAW: Then just a ton of posts about crime...


SHAW: ...Some coverage about cops doing bad things...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: Hey, you guys don't got to beat him up.

SHAW: ...But mostly, lots of stories about lawbreakers, mug shots of desperate-looking people being arrested for things like stabbing their brother, close-up videos of shootings, porch pirates, someone driving their car into a furniture store.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #13: Man, they knocked the motor out that motherfucker.

LUNTAO: On Wednesday, it's a palate cleanser.

SHAW: Like a 104-year-old vet singing.


BILL WHITE: (Singing) From the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of...

LUNTAO: Then on Thursday, again, it's some sort of toxicity.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #14: Oh, my God. He's bleeding. (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #15: Look; another cop is going to arrest us for recording.


SHAW: "Man Openly Smokes Meth In Stockton Drive Thru." "Homeless Transient Violently Attacks Woman At 76 Gas Station." Man arrested for running across the highway naked.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #16: She's literally walking in the middle of the street, blocking fucking traffic now. Oh, my God, dude.

LUNTAO: And that drives a ton of likes.


SHAW: When I look at 209 Times, I just get really overwhelmed. It's just so much content, not just in the website but also on Facebook and Instagram. And among these hellscape posts, that's where the political stuff shows up. Sometimes it's just a picture of a dumpster on fire with the caption #Tubbsville, as if to blame Michael for that fire. And then, every week or so, there's a more in-depth article. The articles can be long - lots of text, lots of details, lots of screenshots of public records. It can be hard to follow the thread.

But if you keep following the website, in all that chaos, you start to see a pattern - the world you live in is divided. On the one side, there are ordinary people dealing with extraordinary problems. And then on the other, there's Michael and the cabal. They're lurking behind the scenes - powerful, cosmopolitan, elite. And so 209 Times and its reporters are fighting the good fight, challenging the cabal at every turn.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #17: Now, your tactic is to use third parties to threaten, sometimes with death - threaten...

SHAW: Over and over, in rambling Facebook videos and posts, 209 Times accuses the same people of being corrupt, of ruining the city.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #18: ...That it's of great public safety concern.

SHAW: And Michael, he's not only corrupt, but he's in the game purely for himself - out of town all the time, getting money from Silicon Valley. He's rude. He lies.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #17: ...People like myself, have a right to a different opinion.

SHAW: In this picture, Lange thinks there's an explicit strategy for getting it to land with readers. First, get people hooked with all that community news - useful, immediate information, like where the traffic pileup is so you can avoid that highway on your way to work. And then...

LUNTAO: They start pushing out misinformation and disinformation on a partisan political level, never disclosing it.

SHAW: The thing is, some of their stories do ask legitimate questions - questions about developer donations to Michael's campaign and nonprofit and whether they led to city contracts or favorable zoning variances. Or for Lange, as a school board member, why did he vote in favor of approving new charter schools run by a company he used to work for? Was it all aboveboard, like Lange said it was?

What makes it so confusing is that all the political stories - they exist on a spectrum of truthiness, which makes it hard to know what you're going to get with any one post, kind of like a white elephant party, except when you unwrap your gift, you still don't know what you're getting exactly. Like, some of the articles I looked into are true, and some of them are false, but a lot of them exist in this gray zone where they take nuggets of truth, things that did happen, and present them in a way that can feel misleading.

For example, they'll write about campaign funds Michael spent outside Stockton as if it's a big expose. But lots of mayors do this, and Michael says some of those trips were for city business. But 209 Times does not give this context. And in the same article, they'll post a picture of Michael at his wedding in Colombia, which seems designed to leave the impression that Michael got married on campaign funds.

And I fell for a story. It was a post about Michael using taxpayer money at an out-of-town dinner to pay for about $30 of beer and wine, which is against city law. And I thought the allegation was legit. And then our producer, Andrew Mambo, pointed out, if you look closely at the records in the story, Michael didn't ask to be reimbursed for the whole meal. When I asked the city, they confirmed. Michael, quote, "did not request reimbursement for the alcohol." Lange says this kind of thing is just par for the course.

LUNTAO: It's an endless hole of just innuendo and doubt.


SHAW: In 2017, the first year Michael took office, 209 Times has around 6,000 followers on Facebook. A year later, they jumped to over 20,000. The year after that, they're close to 68,000. By 2020, 209 Times has over 100,000 followers. For reference, this is a city with a population of about 300,000 people. But this whole time, Michael and Lange and their camp - they're like the unsuspecting group of friends at the lake house in a horror movie. They're basically holding down the same approach - just ignore 209 Times and focus on doing the work. Here's Michael again.

TUBBS: Well, I just thought that this is so stupid. No one's really going to believe this but people who are super right wing, et cetera. And I thought somebody would step up - the local, like, newspaper.

SHAW: The local newspaper, The Record. So I reached out to them to ask about their 209 Times coverage. They declined to comment on that directly, just gave a statement saying they maintain a commitment to fairness and they provide value to the community. But I found a reporter who used to work there and asked him about it.

ROGER PHILLIPS: I don't think it was really a conversation.

SHAW: This is Roger Phillips. He worked at The Record for years and recently left. And he told me in the newsroom, those first years that 209 Times was posting, they didn't even talk about covering it.

PHILLIPS: You know, I really - I can't - looking back on it, it seems obvious that we should have. But at the time, I just don't think we really recognized that it was something, you know, that needed to be done. It was like - it would have been like, you know, doing an investigation into the National Lampoon or something like that.

SHAW: Roger told me they also had plenty on their plate because as 209 Times was getting more and more popular, The Record was shrinking.

PHILLIPS: You got to a certain point where you'd say, well, no, there's no way they could lay anybody else off. There's no - we can't be any smaller than this. And then, you know, a few months would go by, and there would be another round.

SHAW: We know this story by now. The stats are painful to read. More than 2,000 newspapers have closed their doors since 2004. And The Record, while it's still around, has been cannibalized. It’s a tiny part of Gannett Co. Inc, a giant corporation that’s been formed from layers of mergers and acquisitions. There have been layoffs upon layoffs.

When Rogers started working at The Record, he says there were around 85 people in the newsroom. By the time he left in 2019, there were only 11 people. There are also no major TV or radio news stations based in Stockton. And so as The Record's spigot of local coverage turned into a trickle, 209 Times was there with their own sprinkler system, spraying out more and more content. But by this point, you probably want to know what 209 Times readers think about all this.





SHAW: We reached out to literally hundreds of readers, and only a handful were up for talking to us. It was an eclectic bunch - youngest person was 26, oldest was 44. There was a drone pilot, a forklift driver, a bookkeeper, a mix of political affiliations, mostly Latino, one white person, one Black person, one Asian American. People told us all kinds of interesting things. They love that it's hyperlocal...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #22: They have more boots on the ground.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #23: I like when they post things that are going on in the community, you know, positive things.

SHAW: ...That they can participate.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #24: People as myself, they can report, hey, somebody just got robbed at gunpoint; here's my video. And then they'll write about it.

SHAW: They like the tone.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #25: It seems to be a lot more raw.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #23: Broken down in, quote-unquote, "layman's terms."

SHAW: They love how fast it is...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #24: I go to them because they give me the now.

SHAW: ...Even if it's sloppy sometimes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #26: It doesn't seem like there's a lot of oversight at the top when things get published instantly.

SHAW: And yeah, most of the people I talked to can tell there's a bias. But they still trust it for the most part.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #26: I would say it's probably about 70%, 75% accurate.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #25: Just kind of have to filter it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #23: It's not that they're biased; it's just that they are really sharing what we're probably not supposed to know.

SHAW: And hands down - they are fans of the records and documents...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #23: It's not just hearsay or opinion.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #22: More investigative journalism.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #23: I mean, it's facts.

SHAW: ...Especially the ones looking into the mayor.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #27: His hand was kind of in every cookie jar.


SHAW: Coming up, Michael Tubbs runs for reelection, and the power of 209 Times is put to the test.


SHAW: In the spring of 2020, Michael Tubbs is finishing up his first term as mayor and gearing up for reelection. And it's only then, a few years after 209 Times started, that Michael finally realizes this news outlet might actually pose a threat.

TUBBS: When we would knock on doors and call people, and people would just say crazy things...


TUBBS: ...Like, we like Michael, but he's stealing money. Huh? (Laughter). Well, he lives in New York. Que? And I was like, oh, my gosh, you guys, people really believe this.

SHAW: At the same time, Michael's feeling, you know, pretty confident. He's proud of the work he's done. And because of all the press coverage, he's become, like, a big deal. He has an HBO doc, a TED Talk with almost 3 million views. He's backed by Kamala Harris, Michael Bloomberg. He's got a lot of money on his side - over $830,000, around $500,000 more than what his opponent raised. But by the fall, a week before Election Day, other people like Michael's best friend, Lange Luntao, are feeling worried.

Who do you think is winning the narrative game in town right now?

LUNTAO: Ooh, I think we are going to have to see what happened in the election next week. I do not know.

SHAW: Oh, you really don't know.

LUNTAO: I really don't know, yeah. I think that 209 Times can definitely shift a narrative. But I haven't seen it stick.

SHAW: (Yawning). OK, it is 9 a.m. on the East Coast after election night, and I'm going to check the results in Stockton.

I promise I usually wake up before 9 a.m. on a workday. But November 4, you know, that was a long night.

Oh, wow. OK, wow. I did not expect that at all (laughter). Whoa.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #9: Thirty-year-old Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs, a Democrat, conceded the race to Republican Kevin Lincoln.

SHAW: A relative newcomer, a local pastor and Republican named Kevin Lincoln, had managed to beat Michael Tubbs for Stockton mayor by a comfortable margin. Michael had lost, and he blamed 209 Times.

TUBBS: I thought that most people could read something and be like, oh, that's not true. Like, oh, if the mayor was under FBI investigation, I would hear that in the Stockton newspaper. Or if Mayor Tubbs was under investigation, I would read about it in The New York Times, the LA Times, BBC, like, all the other - like, all the places that write about everything I - like, you know what I'm saying? Like, we thought that that, logically, would be enough to kind of counterbalance sort of the misinformation that was happening.

SHAW: I talked to a lot of political insiders, and they said there were plenty of other reasons Michael lost. Maybe some people didn't like having an ambitious, young, Black mayor. Stockton mayors historically don't win reelection. And he made political blunders, serious ones. Some thought he was too radical, too fast or too focused on corporate philanthropy. Others thought he could come off as arrogant, that there was a feeling he was using Stockton as a stepping stone, out of town too much, not focused enough on Stockton's problems, spending too much time posing for the camera or on his phone and not enough time with constituents listening to their concerns.


SHAW: But everyone I talked to also said 209 Times did play a role - by holding a mirror to Michael's mistakes and magnifying, even distorting them. It's impossible to say what kind of clout 209 Times had. But we do know that the majority of candidates that 209 Times endorsed last November, they won - 12 out of 17, in some cases, beating out incumbents like Lange, who lost his school board seat.

How are you doing?

LUNTAO: (Laughter) I am doing fine.

SHAW: I talked to Lange the day after the election. Obviously, his heart's broken that he and Michael lost. But that's politics. What was upsetting him - or at least one of the things - was the culture he thinks 209 Times has stoked, the racist memes, the releasing of somebody's shirtless Grindr pics, associating him with human trafficking. And the reader comments on 209 Times, they can be rough.

LUNTAO: It's all, like, Lange Luntao and Michael Tubbs, the mayor, are in a secret, like, homosexual relationship. God forbid I was, like, a best man at his wedding, right? Like, his wife and I, the first partner of Stockton, are best friends as well, you know, like - and also, he's not my type but (laughter)...

SHAW: Lange has seen comments calling him a creep and other slurs, speculating about whether he and Michael are lovers. But what really hurts Lange is a rumor his mom said she heard, something an acquaintance told her after reading what she said was a comment on 209 Times. And OK, I know that just repeating something can make it stick in your brain, so we're not going to tell you the rumor because we couldn't find the comment, and 209 Times says they haven't seen it, either. All you need to know is that it's an incredibly harmful, homophobic trope. And that for Lange, whether or not this comment came from 209 Times, it's the buildup of all of it, of being a constant target, of his parents worrying about whether he's in trouble and of seeing hateful comments on 209 Times, who he holds responsible for fanning the flames of homophobia and racism.

LUNTAO: And when my mom heard that rumor, oh, man, that was (sighing) - yeah. That's the sort of stuff that I didn't sign up for, you know? Yeah, because you can try to refute that all you want, right? Like, you can point out, rightfully, that there's no factual basis to an accusation like that. But at the end of the day, my mom had to hear - sorry. (Crying) I haven't slept much last night, obviously.

SHAW: No, no, no. Take your time.

LUNTAO: Probably just need a good cry.

SHAW: A lot of people have been targeted by 209 Times, not just elected officials - nonprofit leaders, organizers, bureaucrats, political consultants. If you're wondering why people don't just sue 209 Times for libel, well, I did hear of several people trying to put together cases at one point. In California, if you lose your lawsuit, though, you have to pay for the other party's attorney's fees, so it's a high bar. But believe me when I tell you a lot of Stocktonians are pissed about 209 Times and kicking themselves for not taking it more seriously earlier.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #28: To accuse me of human trafficking because I was using a gay dating app.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #29: They just associate you enough to muddy you and try to drag your name down.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #30: That's what's so dangerous and what scares me.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #31: You know, playing on these narratives that basically retraumatized the populations.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #32: If you could get away with the lies that were told this time, what's to stop them about making up any story or a lie that they want to make up about anyone?

SHAW: And they're trying to sleuth out whether 209 Times is part of the conspiracy to take progressives down. 209 Times has gone after some conservatives, but as Lange told me, it seemed to him that, mainly, it was a particular kind of leader that gets targeted - younger leaders, people of color, LGBTQ, progressive folks, people trying to make bold change.


SHAW: Then I heard who was behind 209 Times, and it was not the kind of person I was expecting. It was someone Michael, Lange and their crew all knew.

LUNTAO: I saw him at meetings. And I was like, oh, this guy seems interesting.

HATTEN: So I met him at a coffee shop, and I could tell that he had a lot of heart.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #33: I was actually pursuing to have him do that work with us.

SHAW: A local progressive, a fellow activist who taught ethnic studies, who'd organized for Occupy Stockton, a proud Chicano, a former Bernie delegate - a man called Motecuzoma Sanchez.

MOTECUZOMA SANCHEZ: We haven't started spying on a action yet, but that might be our newest correspondent - is the drone.


SHAW: Next time on INVISIBILIA, the founder of 209 Times, who rejects all the critiques.

SANCHEZ: People like to point out we're not journalists. And we tell them all the time, look; we're not going to argue with you. You're right. We're not trying to win a Pulitzer Prize. Our aim is to empower our community and protect it.

SHAW: We'll go to the front lines of a revolt against the mainstream media. Before the series is over, we'll get to the bottom of at least one conspiracy theory. There will be revenge plots, a fistfight outside Barnes & Noble. We'll find one Band-Aid for our current post-truth, fake-news pickle. And by the end of this fight, we'll see who's left standing.


NATISSE: OK, so if you haven't caught on by now, podcasting is a team sport. Even though we got to hear lots of Yowei's beautiful voice in this episode, there was a whole army of talented producers helping to make this story behind the scenes - James Kim, Liza Yeager, Chris Benderev and Rhaina Cohen, with even more help from Daveed Goodhertz (ph), Theo Greenly, Carolyn McCusker, Justine Yan and Diba Mohtasham. Fact-checking by Billy Brennan (ph), Sarah Knight, Ayda Pourasad and Naomi Sharp.

Special thanks to all the people in Stockton who spoke to us, who were very generous with their time, perspectives, leads and hearts. A big thank-you to Kelly Prime for helping shape this project way back in the beginning. INVISIBILIA is produced by me, Yowei Shaw, Andrew Mambo and Abby Wendle. This episode was mastered by our technical director, Andy Huether. Our podcast manager is Liana Simstrom. Deborah George is our supervising senior editor. Our supervising senior producer is Nicole Beemsterboer. Neal Carruth and Steve Nelson are our senior director of programming, and our senior vice president of programming is Anya Grundmann.

Additional thanks to Micah Ratner, Gerry Holmes, Luis Trelles, Jenny Schmidt, David Folkenflik, Anjuli Sastry, Kyle Pulley, Jessica Hansen, Sandhya Dirks, Robert Benincasa and Nina Patton (ph). Music for this episode provided by Infinity Knives, William Cashion, Connor Moore of CMoore Sound, Connor Lafitte and Firephly. Theme music by Infinity Knives. To see an original illustration for this episode by Qieer Wang, visit npr.org/invisibilia.


NATISSE: And finally, a special thank you to Amanda Edgington (ph) from Austin, Texas, who sent us the sound you're listening to right now. We'd love to hear more from you all. So if you have a sound you'd like to share, send it over to invisibiliamail@npr.org.

[POST-PUBLICATION CORRECTION: In a previous version of this story, we originally said that the Stockton Record is a part of the Gannett chain which is now owned by an investment firm. The Record is, in fact, owned by Gannett Co. Inc.]

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