Revolt Against Mainstream Media in Stockton: Behind 209 Times : Invisibilia The man behind 209 Times is not who you'd expect. In Part 2, co-host Yowei Shaw discovers the website's surprising origin story, and ends up at the frontlines of a revolt against the mainstream media and a fight over who gets to own the truth.

The Chaos Machine: Wrathful Lord

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YOWEI SHAW, HOST:

Hey, listeners. It's Yowei. So we do callouts for surveys all the time, as you probably have heard. But, like, actually, it really does help us. It helps us to know what you like, how we could improve. Go to npr.org/springsurvey to fill out an anonymous survey. Please help us do better. We want to hear from everybody - old listeners and new listeners. Again, that's npr.org/springsurvey. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you so much.

KIA MIAKKA NATISSE, HOST:

This episode is explicit.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: From NPR, this is INVISIBILIA. I'm Yowei Shaw. Welcome to Part II of our series The Chaos Machine. If you haven't listened to Part I, please go back and listen. When I started making calls in Stockton last summer, people told me over and over that this story needed to be covered. But this story about the news is a lot like the news in that there's so many ways you could tell the same story depending on who you talk to...

NICHOLAS HATTEN: It's to prevent communities of color to be empowered.

SHAW: ...Which details you include...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MICHAEL TUBBS: These stupid memes. I mean, this was racist.

SHAW: ...Which feelings you make space for.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LANGE LUNTAO: Probably just need a good cry.

SHAW: Like, to a lot of people in Stockton and probably outside, the story goes like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: A political star has fallen.

SHAW: Michael Tubbs, the first Black mayor of Stockton, Calif., is this rising progressive star who's just lost reelection.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: It was a surprising defeat, especially because Tubbs had a big national profile.

SHAW: And people are pointing their fingers at something called 209 Times.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: A local guy with a blog who made it his mission to take down Tubbs.

TONYA MOSLEY: A site they say traffics in misinformation is now becoming the go-to source for the community.

SHAW: What they call a propaganda site that's become one of the most popular sources of local news in town - an outlet, they say, that spent the last four years targeting Michael Tubbs and his crew with racist memes and misinformation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MOSLEY: And they're warning that this may be a microcosm of what happens to a democracy when local news dies.

SHAW: So that's one version. But obviously, when you talk to the people behind 209 Times, the story looks pretty different. I'm not a fan of both-siderism, and I'm not about to do that here. It's just when I started talking to the 209 Times crew, I discovered a bucket of motives and beefs I never heard before when it comes to stories about misinformation - motives that, upon further inspection, helped me understand the drama and turmoil in Stockton and also some of the current distrust of mainstream media in general, why people think we're liars.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: And the man at the center of all the beefs is a man named Motecuzoma Sanchez or Motec. By now, a lot of people in Stockton have an opinion on Motec, especially the people 209 Times loves to call part of the Stockton Cabal, including Michael's clique. I heard so many things, y'all. I felt like a gossip sponge. People just kept feeding me that dirt. Had he cried in the Marines? Did he once throw rocks at a rival student group in college?

Here's what I know. Motec is 45, a self-described progressive, a former Bernie delegate and union organizer, a Chicano activist who taught ethnic studies and organized for Occupy Stockton, who'd worked with a bunch of the people he later targeted. People told me he had a history of trying to take over groups and blowing them up when he didn't get his way. And I heard about a group of youth organizers who claimed to be so put off by an interaction with Motec, they wrote about it in a skit and performed it. Let's just say a lot of time has been spent theorizing about Motec at more than one happy hour at more than one bar.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I think he cares about nothing. I think if you paid him enough money, he would go away.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I honestly think it has a lot to do with ego.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: He has quite a bit of jealousy. He feels that he's the one who should be mayor.

SHAW: You know when there's a movie that everyone has an opinion about on Twitter but you still have not watched that movie and so the anticipation is killing you because you just want to know where you stand? That was the feeling I was having about Motec. I was dying to meet him.

MOTECUZOMA SANCHEZ: Call using internet audio or dial in.

SHAW: When Motec shows up on video call to give me a tour of the office...

SANCHEZ: Can you see me now? There you go (laughter).

SHAW: ...He's got tattoos, a nose ring and so much swagger, he can pull off an entire outfit of 209 Times swag - black polo, black hat - without looking like a dork.

SANCHEZ: These hats right here, we sell these on our website. So we sell...

SHAW: The office looks like a suburban strip mall law firm that's been taken over by journalism frat boys. Like, there are guitars on the lobby wall that I learned are also boomboxes.

Have you all ever had, like, a party at 209 Times?

SANCHEZ: Oh, yeah.

SHAW: (Laughter).

SANCHEZ: Most definitely. Yeah.

SHAW: An entire room dedicated to pumping iron.

SANCHEZ: Yeah, so we try to stay in shape.

SHAW: Media equipment is scattered everywhere - lights, acoustic foam on the wall, a green screen and more than one drone.

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

SHAW: And then Motec sits down for the interview.

SANCHEZ: There we go.

SHAW: And I got to say...

SANCHEZ: OK. Is that better?

SHAW: ...I was surprised by how open and warm he was...

SANCHEZ: Yeah, we're in business finally.

SHAW: ...Even when I asked questions I thought he'd get defensive about, like why did he change his name from Patrick Sanchez Powell to Motecuzoma Patricio Sanchez. And he answers without missing a beat. Powell was his dad's last name, he said, and he didn't grow up with his dad. And he wanted an Indigenous name because he felt more connected to that part of his heritage.

SANCHEZ: Because Patrick means nobleman, and Motecuzoma means wrathful lord. And so to me, it also went with my personality. Since I was younger, you know, I was known as, like, Oscar the Grouch and stuff like that.

SHAW: You know, it's funny because talking to you now, you seem so calm. And, like, I'm having a hard time imagining you being wrathful.

SANCHEZ: (Laughter) Well, it's only when necessary.

SHAW: But what I really wanted to know was what Motec had to say about all the allegations and theories. I started running through them, everything I'd heard from people in Stockton. And he answered the same way - no hesitation. He just agreed with everything they said. Nah, just playing - Motec sees everything completely differently. Like the rumors I mentioned earlier about throwing rocks or having a conflict with a youth organizing group - no way, he says. And the allegations that 209 Times is homophobic...

SANCHEZ: That was the narrative they crafted.

SHAW: Or the memes about Michael, like the picture of him as a crack addict...

SANCHEZ: Nothing racist about it.

SHAW: He says that was just political commentary, satire.

SANCHEZ: Every time we would come out and criticize him with valid criticism, it was not, like, hey; let's focus on his issue and explain why he's always out of town. 209 Times is just racist. That's why they don't like the first Black mayor. That was always their defense - is to try to introduce identity politics as their defense.

SHAW: As for sometimes spreading misinformation or posting stories with exaggerated headlines, like the one about Michael Tubbs caught red-handed misusing public funds to buy alcohol, Motec says you can debate the gravity of it. But if you do the math, Michael technically got reimbursed for more than the food - almost $2 of alcohol. Again, the city told us that Michael didn't ask to be reimbursed for alcohol, but to Motec, there's nothing misleading about this story. He's got the restaurant receipt.

SANCHEZ: We go out of our way to do our research and to obtain documents. A lot of times, we get stories where it's like, OK, we need more documentation. Right. If we publicly put this out there and make this claim, we need to be able to back it up and support it.

SHAW: Motec denies that 209 Times hooks readers with community news in order to put out propaganda. What's more, Motec insists 209 Times is completely independent. There are no shadowy partisan orgs or politicians telling them what to cover.

So candidates don't pay for positive or negative coverage.

SANCHEZ: No, not at all.

SHAW: Which brought me to the last big theory I heard. Was Motec just a jealous hater? He's run for office several times, actually - never won. In fact, he ran against Michael Tubbs in that last election - never made it past the primary.

SANCHEZ: First of all, I never cared about being mayor. What is there to be jealous of? That is nowhere near a motivation. There's nothing that I have reason to be jealous of Michael.

SHAW: In the beginning, Motec says they were cool. But then Motec was nominated to a city commission, and Michael voted to block the nomination. Then they disagreed about reopening a neighborhood library. Motec was for it; Michael, against for fiscal reasons.

SANCHEZ: So we really saw it like this guy is not who he says he is. He's not practicing what he preaches.

SHAW: It seems like they both have good arguments. But for it to cause such a deep hatred for a mayor who a lot of people think has done a lot of good for the same disenfranchised group of people that Motec cares about - the universal basic income pilot project, college scholarships, wrangling millions of dollars from the state to address homelessness - I could go on. But then Motec kept talking, and I began to see how he views the world. He told me he first developed a distrust of the rich and powerful when he was a poor kid who hated being poor, somebody who'd rather go hungry than be seen waiting in line for the free school lunch. But what really woke him up, he says, was being sent overseas for the beginning of the Iraq war. And then later...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD RUMSFELD: The coalition did not act in Iraq because we had discovered dramatic new evidence of Iraq's pursuit of weapons of mass murder.

SHAW: ...Watching on TV as Donald Rumsfeld admitted there hadn't been new evidence of weapons of mass destruction after all. Oops.

SANCHEZ: That was the whole basis, the whole pretext for us to go over there, and you're coming out now. And you were safe this whole time in an air-conditioned room, and you're coming out with, like, well, maybe it was a mistake. Like, that didn't sit well with me.

SHAW: Did you lose any friends?

SANCHEZ: Yes, I actually did lose a friend. And he was killed near Baghdad.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: Motec talked to me about that feeling of having been lied to. And then it clicked for me - how most of his critiques about Michael, they boiled down to that same feeling.

SANCHEZ: Like, outside media - you guys were shown Michael Tubbs through a filtered lens. You guys had no exposure to, like, the real Michael Tubbs and who he really was and is. And that is how we won because we showed everybody who he really is.

SHAW: Basically, Motec thinks Michael's a liar, that he put out this image as do-gooder savior of Stockton but was exploiting the city's pain for personal gain while serving developers and Silicon Valley. But getting Michael Tubbs out of office - that's not actually the reason, Motec says, he started 209 Times. It's really about his disgust with something else, something way bigger than just a beef in Stockton. It's actually about one of our biggest beefs right now as a country about who gets to own the truth. Motec says there was this pivotal moment for him. It was 2017. Michael had taken office as mayor, and there was a city council meeting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TUBBS: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the city council meeting. Bonnie, could you please proceed with roll call?

SHAW: This is video of a meeting which has charmingly terrible audio. Mayor Michael Tubbs and city council members are sitting behind a fancy wooden dais. The room is surprisingly packed. There are members from the Stockton Sikh temple getting a certificate of recognition and Black Lives Matter activists demanding justice for men that had been killed by local law enforcement.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DENISE FRIDAY: And the people in the community are upset about it. And I am, too.

TUBBS: Thank you, Ms. Friday.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Don't interrupt her.

SHAW: And then Motec walks up to the podium.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TUBBS: Moving on to item 12 - consent agenda. Are there any items the council would like to...

SANCHEZ: I turned in a card. I turned in a card for public comment.

SHAW: He's there to support a resolution to make Stockton a sanctuary city.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SANCHEZ: I turned in a card. For three minutes, I get a chance to speak.

On this particular night, I turned in a card to speak. Michael Tubbs is, like, refusing to let me speak.

SHAW: According to city government rules, Michael did have the right to tell Motec to wait. But Michael's face is one of pure exasperation, like a teacher who's had it with a rowdy student they really don't like.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TUBBS: Motec, this is your warning.

SANCHEZ: For public comment.

TUBBS: This is your warning.

SHAW: There's an officer behind the podium, and you can see his eyes darting back and forth between Michael and Motec like he's watching a tennis match.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TUBBS: There's seven cards for that item, sir.

SANCHEZ: There's my card right there.

SHAW: And then the Black Lives Matter protesters - they start shouting to let Motec speak.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Let him speak. Let him speak.

SHAW: And things start heating up even more.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TUBBS: The council will recess for five minutes.

(SOUNDBITE OF GAVEL BANGING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Chanting) Now. Justice now.

SANCHEZ: This what you call running a meeting?

He gets upset because he's now lost control of the meeting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #1: Move back.

SANCHEZ: Next thing you know, all these police - like, 20, more than 20 officers come in and just start immediately, like, physically removing these Black Lives Matter activists that were there because they wanted answers from the new mayor.

SHAW: There's cellphone video that's intense to watch. The police used batons to push protesters out of the room and down a stairwell.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #2: Move. Move. Move. Move. Move.

SANCHEZ: And so it just turns into this fiasco where it was, again, on the news.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE TESELLE: Deirdre, Teo, last night's city council meeting becoming so disruptive that the mayor ended up...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (Yelling, unintelligible).

SHAW: Michael insists he didn't call the police to remove protesters from the meeting. He says that was the city manager's call and that the protesters were taking time away from other community members. He said he got texts from citizens who were afraid. But to Motec and a lot of people watching, Michael acted completely inappropriately. Like, here are people in pain, demanding answers for their loved ones who've been killed by the police. And you're going to let the police kick protesters out because they're chanting a little loud?

All of this, by the way, tracks with a common complaint I heard about Michael - that he's not great with critique, that he can be disrespectful to constituents trying to give him feedback. But the thing that stuck with Motec, what was so important to him, wasn't the chaos or how Michael behaved. It's what happened the next day.

SANCHEZ: The next day in the Record, it comes out, and they try to portray the picture as if, like, it was all my fault.

SHAW: There was a news story in the Stockton Record. Motec thought they got the version of events wrong.

SANCHEZ: And they accused me of things, of saying that I jumped out of turn. I wasn't authorized to speak.

SHAW: But what really set him off was an opinion column that Motec says blames him for causing the chaos.

SANCHEZ: And I was trying to, like, disrupt the meeting on purpose because I had a grudge against Tubbs. It was to the point where, like, they totally misrepresented what happened. They assassinated my character to the point where I was, like, receiving death threats.

SHAW: Motec says the column was totally on the mayor's side and biased. I read the column, and it does come down a bit hard on Motec. It says, quote, "The speaker was a man named Motecuzoma Sanchez, whose abnormal malice tarnishes his activism. Sanchez demanded to speak then and there. And what if Tubbs had said, oh, go ahead? Then any citizen could bully the council and speak when they please. Any egoist like Sanchez could grandstand."

SANCHEZ: The Record I had had a good relationship with prior, and they had turned on me.

SHAW: Motec says there were previous run-ins, too - columns in The Record calling him a troll, a pompous know-it-all and one reporting that people had called him a homophobe and racist for some Facebook posts he wrote. For Motec, though, this was the point of no return. The Record had created a false narrative about him.

SANCHEZ: I'm not going to just sit there and take this.

SHAW: He was like, oh, the Record, the local paper that's supposed to be objective, was acting as the mayor's mouthpiece instead of holding him accountable.

SANCHEZ: And they were putting their thumb on a scale, and they were on a side. They were not objective. They were not nonbiased.

SHAW: Motec decided to take revenge on the Record.

SANCHEZ: Point blank, they were going to have to pay.

SHAW: He'd outperform them with 209 Times, a community news outlet made by and for the people of Stockton - in his words, the disenfranchised, the forgotten, the disrespected. And being an ex-Marine, Motec says he thought about the mission with a military mindset.

SANCHEZ: First thing you do in an invasion, you eliminate the communications of the enemy.

SHAW: They'd supply original local news that no one else was reporting. They'd get a hold of public documents.

SANCHEZ: We're going to be like the WikiLeaks of the 209.

SHAW: They'd expose corruption and do it with flair.

SANCHEZ: I got to catch your attention within the first two seconds. If not, you're just going to keep scrolling.

SHAW: They'd operate on a bare-bones budget. Like that office space and media equipment he showed me - he says he gets to use it for free, shares it with businesses that support his work. And human labor - don't worry about it. Motec says the 209 Times crew runs 13 people deep, a mix of political ideologies. Recently, he says, he started paying a few folks a small stipend from ad revenue, but mostly, it's all-volunteer. Most have day jobs, including him.

It's hard to understand how 209 Times can post, like, eight times a day, if you count Facebook and Instagram, and do quite a bit of original reporting all on volunteer steam. But then Motec tells me their biggest superpower - that they've been able to turn their tens of thousands of followers into reporters - people inside the police department, the school district, drivers on the street, all walks of life sending tips, photos, documents and videos of everything from car accidents to fires to corruption, which is about as community journalism-y (ph) as you can get.

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 are not professional journalists, right? We're guerilla journalists. We're not polished, and we're not trying to win a Pulitzer Prize.

SHAW: Hearing Motec explain all this, how he systematically set about beating a legacy news outlet - it felt a little bit like being a cab driver listening in on a presentation from Uber but, like, in 2008, before Uber disrupted everything.

If the Record had treated you differently...

SANCHEZ: I probably would've never created 209 Times, to be honest.

SHAW: Really? You really think that?

SANCHEZ: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF GETITI SONG, "TELL A STORY")

SHAW: When we come back, what Motec's mainstream media nemesis has to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF GETITI SONG, "TELL A STORY")

SHAW: Thinking the mainstream media is trash - it's a pretty popular opinion these days. According to a 2020 Gallup poll, 6 in 10 people have not very much trust or no trust at all in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately or fairly - a record high. And while people tend to trust local news more than national news, that trust is vulnerable to the same perceptions of bias. Now, there are a bunch of complicated reasons for this distrust, but I specifically wanted to dig more into what the mainstream media was doing to contribute to the problem. Motec has lots of hot takes about this, especially in Stockton. And some of what Motec complained about with the Record - it seems reasonable enough.

SANCHEZ: You have really nothing but older white males, right? Stockton was being presented to the world through their eyes. And you're not going to run into them at the park on a Saturday at the handball courts. You're not going to run into them at the club on a Friday night.

SHAW: He's talking about a racial and class divide here. But the stuff Motec was saying about the Record being in bed with elected officials - that felt like a stretch. I went over some of the examples Motec gave me, and they seemed pretty thin except for one case, possibly.

SANCHEZ: He was basically the unofficial publicist for Michael Tubbs, for a lot of these political players.

SHAW: The journalist in question - his name is Michael Fitzgerald. He used to work at the Record as a columnist. He actually wrote that column that was the turning point for Motec, the one calling him an egoist with abnormal malice. Anyway, Motec thinks Fitzgerald is an out-of-touch elite.

SANCHEZ: He was using the Record to push his personal bias, the same thing people accuse us of.

SHAW: Motec says he has evidence of Fitzgerald's bias. 209 Times did a story about it, alleging that Michael Fitzgerald has a "stepdaughter" - they put that in quotes - named Jasmine. And they found campaign docs that showed that she'd worked as a paid consultant for Michael Tubbs' campaign back in 2016, a fact Fitzgerald never disclosed in the paper even though he'd written extensively about Michael Tubbs over the years, which is something I know my editor at NPR would make me disclose.

MICHAEL FITZGERALD: These guys are not investigators. What I did at the Record - they were never trained to do that, and they're no good at it.

SHAW: As you can tell, Michael Fitzgerald is not a fan of Motec or 209 Times. But he was happy to explain his side of Stepdaughtergate.

FITZGERALD: I'm not her stepdad. I jokingly refer to myself as her third dad.

SHAW: Fitzgerald has been in a long-term relationship with Jasmine's mom, but he says he and Jasmine never lived together.

FITZGERALD: This is classic, take-a-kernel-of-truth-and-distort-it, 209 Times baloney.

SHAW: He says he didn't even know that Jasmine was working as a paid consultant for the Tubbs campaign. I checked, and she was paid $870 in total for an educational project with high school students.

FITZGERALD: But anyway, when I found out, I talked to my editor. And I said, hey. Jasmine - she's an adult. She's doing something for the Tubbs campaign. She's getting paid. Do I need to disclose this? And my editor said, no, it doesn't quite rise to the level of a disclosable fact.

SHAW: Which is gray-zone debatable. But anyway, Fitzgerald says he's never been biased in favor of Michael Tubbs, that his coverage was accurate and fair. Plus, he was a columnist. He was paid to have an opinion.

FITZGERALD: I would say that Motec doesn't make a distinction between being supportive of a good leader and being biased in favor of them. If you told me that Tubbs was doing something dirty, I would immediately revise my opinion about Tubbs. I would not screen that information out.

SHAW: As for calling Motec an egoist whose abnormal malice tarnishes his activism, Fitzgerald says he was just telling the truth.

FITZGERALD: He is constantly feuding. In fact, that seems to be his primary form of self-expression.

SHAW: And he says he's experienced the malice himself. Motec used to be one of his sources for community news. But after Fitzgerald wrote some columns that Motec didn't like, Fitzgerald says he started getting venomous emails from Motec. I know. I've gotten some, too. For Fitzgerald, that was the end of the conversation.

FITZGERALD: If you want something from me, you have to keep your manners in your mouth. Those are the ground rules, right?

SHAW: Fitzgerald says he did what he does with any source acting like this. He cut Motec off.

FITZGERALD: So, yeah, there's a sort of a civilizing influence that newspapers have.

SHAW: Right, as gatekeepers to public life...

FITZGERALD: Yes. Yeah.

SHAW: ...And the narrative.

FITZGERALD: But more than the public is generally aware. And they're sensing the loss now even though they don't fully realize what they're losing.

LEWIS RAVEN WALLACE: I think that that gatekeeping power and the way that it's been used to silence people whose voices and opinions and worldview are outside of the mainstream is a really legitimate source of distrust in media.

SHAW: Lewis Raven Wallace is an independent journalist. I wanted to talk to him because even though Motec and Lewis have totally different approaches to journalism, Lewis has been plenty mad at the mainstream media himself.

WALLACE: I mean, I would say if there's one thing that I'm famous for, it is getting fired (laughter).

SHAW: A few years ago, Lewis was working at the public radio show Marketplace. And he wrote a blog post criticizing the idea of journalistic objectivity, saying that as a trans person, it was impossible for him to be neutral and report, quote, unquote, "objectively" about policies that harm trans people, like bathroom bills.

WALLACE: To us, the whole thing was almost, like, a joke. Like, they're giving this performance of being nonbiased. But in fact, they are very, very biased toward their own environment of, you know, cisgender, white-dominant, upper-middle class.

SHAW: Lewis lost his job over the post, but he went on to write a book and podcast investigating this norm of objectivity, where it comes from. And he found a history that is relatively recent and ethically ambiguous. To begin with, until the 1830s, there was no such thing as a nonpartisan, objective newspaper in the U.S. Newspapers were funded by business interests or political parties, and their readers were elites.

WALLACE: So your political reporting came straight from the political party. It's the opposite of nonpartisan.

SHAW: But then there was a big influx of population into northern cities and a rise in public education. More people were reading. And newspaper publishers - they had an idea. What if they sold papers on street corners to lots of people? Voila - the penny paper.

WALLACE: And with that shift in business model came an incentive to be a little bit more nonpartisan and a little bit more outside of politics because you wanted to sell lots of papers. And you wanted to advertise in them, so you didn't want to piss off advertisers. So it was really an economic incentive that started this whole thing.

SHAW: It wasn't until the 1920s and '30s that the word objectivity began appearing in journalism ethics codes. But that professional norm of objectivity, a presumption of neutrality - Lewis points out that it's been used again and again to maintain the status quo, which is great if you benefit from the current status quo, not so great if you don't. For example, just look at how The New York Times used to report on lynchings of Black people.

WALLACE: It was basically like, this white mob lynched someone on the one hand. On the other hand, that person was a criminal. That person raped a white woman or did something wrong.

SHAW: Today, it feels like the secret's out about objectivity. Like, we all know that which sets of facts you include in a story, whose opinions, which photo - there are choices behind all those things. As my own parents remind me all the time, it's impossible for the news to be completely unbiased. So what does that mean for mainstream media outlets, including NPR? What happens when somebody spots bias and gets disillusioned? Talking to Motec about this, he would make very good points about objectivity that I did not have a great answer for.

SANCHEZ: They choose everything from the title, who's quoted, who's interviewed. And it paints a narrative of what they want the reader to walk away with.

SHAW: Yeah.

SANCHEZ: We are only doing what mainstream media in America is doing every single day.

SHAW: It was uncomfortable. It seemed like Motec was using this critique about objectivity to say all professional journalism is bankrupt, which I don't agree with. There's a long list of other North stars we're always shooting for - fairness, transparency, accuracy, accountability, on and on. And it's not just us making the call. We depend on knowledgeable sources and experienced editors to guide us. We're constantly trying to check our biases. At the end of the day, though, I was still asking Motec to trust me, to trust my judgment. But Motec was stuck on the objectivity thing.

SANCHEZ: But you are showing a bias.

SHAW: Oh, I'm just trying to get your take.

SANCHEZ: And I appreciate that, but I just want the same consideration and the context...

SHAW: It made me wonder. When journalists say they're objective, does that allow outlets like 209 Times to claim some kind of moral high ground, to say, at least they're honest?

SANCHEZ: The thing is we don't deny our bias. The Record also picks sides, but they try to pretend like they're not. That's the difference.

SHAW: I asked Lewis Wallace about this.

WALLACE: Yeah, totally. Claiming objectivity has diminishing returns in terms of trust because every time that somebody can find a bias - and, of course, it's going to - people are going to find that - then the whole foundation that you've presented for why people should trust you is just chipped away at. And you can't really get it back.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FITZGERALD: So there were legitimate and are legitimate criticisms to be made of legacy media.

SHAW: Yeah. Can we talk...

FITZGERALD: And we have to own that.

SHAW: Can we talk about - but those are the...

FITZGERALD: And we have to learn from that. But look at the alternative.

SHAW: Michael Fitzgerald is willing to engage with critiques of legacy media, but...

You think I'm being a sucker.

FITZGERALD: Yeah, I do.

SHAW: He thinks the origins of 209 Times are not about the Record being biased and unfair. Fitzgerald believes 209 Times is not interested in seeking the truth at all.

FITZGERALD: Their original idea was not to be a news organ of any sort. They wanted to be kingmakers. They wanted to be power brokers who decided who got elected and who didn't get elected.

SHAW: After he left the Record, Fitzgerald was actually working on an expose about 209 Times but then had to put it aside.

FITZGERALD: Oh gosh, Yowei, I'm about to give you the best stuff that nobody knows about.

SHAW: OK.

He told me about a guy named Jemal Guillory, or J.R. He still hadn't verified his story, but J.R. claimed to be the co-founder of 209 Times. He'd fallen out with Motec and was ready to meet Fitzgerald in a secret location and tell all.

FITZGERALD: I went to this place on the edge of town where I would have meetings on the down-low.

SHAW: Right.

FITZGERALD: And I thought, oh, boy, here's my inside information. I'll get him on the record.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: After the break, say hello to Stockton's Deep Throat.

JEMAL GUILLORY: Hello?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: Fitzgerald wasn't the only one to tell me about J.R. Lots of people who weren't fans of 209 Times told me to talk to him.

JAKE TYLER: I don't know if you talked to J.R.

TUBBS: J.R. Guillory should have more info.

SHAW: It seemed like J.R. was making the rounds. And people thought he was worth talking to.

TYLER: I'm always a little suspicious of anybody that's got a grudge. My point is I wouldn't take anything at face value, but it might point you in the right direction.

SHAW: So I called him up.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIAL TONE)

SHAW: And the story I'm about to tell you - it kept me hanging for months. And I think it's a good illustration of both the importance of old-school professional journalism norms and also how easy it is to fall prey to your own biases, whoever you are. Also, I just find the shenanigans very entertaining.

GUILLORY: Hello?

SHAW: J.R.'s happy to talk. And like Motec, he says he's a Marine.

GUILLORY: You understand your rules of engagement. You understand your enforcement tools.

SHAW: A Marine who also likes to use a lot of military lingo in casual conversation.

GUILLORY: You know, military - we call it the fog of war.

SHAW: You can find J.R.'s name on some of the bylines on 209 Times. He actually wrote that first story Michael Tubbs ever read about himself. So it seems plausible that J.R. could have co-founded 209 Times with Motec, who he despises now. Here's J.R. recounting their first meal together with hindsight 20/20.

GUILLORY: And this guy did not tip the waiter.

SHAW: Oh.

GUILLORY: Yeah, he's a big labor guy. He's talking this. This guy even asked for half my sandwich. He wanted to split a sandwich half and half.

SHAW: (Laughter).

GUILLORY: Like, what the hell is going on? Like - yeah, I told my wife that, and she was like, don't do anything with this guy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: Motec confirms they got sandwiches but denies not leaving a tip. Anyway, remember how Motec said he started 209 Times because The Record had wronged him? Well, J.R. tells me that 209 Times, at least in the beginning, was really about something else - power and money, to be the new kingmakers in town but available for hire.

GUILLORY: We didn't want to run ads. Ads are pretty cheesy or whatever. And actually, I have a cousin who was working at BuzzFeed at the time while I was doing this. And so what he said they do - they do native advertising.

SHAW: Native advertising, which is essentially paid content - when an ad is dressed up like a regular news story, so it's hard to spot. J.R.'s idea was, why not do native advertising on 209 Times but with politicians, not companies pushing products?

GUILLORY: We were going to use candidates, put them on a subscription basis that you're going to give us, you know, a certain percentage of your money. Sign here. Here's the money. Let's go to work.

SHAW: J.R. is saying that he wanted to sell political coverage on 209 Times, like hit pieces against a political candidate, but you as a reader wouldn't know an opponent had paid for it. You'd think it was journalism. And he says one of their early tactics for building an audience was to intentionally create chaos, like that showdown at the city council meeting you heard about earlier. J.R. says that was actually planned by him and Motec. Cause a scene so that 209 Times could cover the drama and then rake in the eyeballs.

GUILLORY: We'll send 10 people just to cause chaos. We aren't going to follow the rules of decorum. And we're going to hold these council members - you know, present a hostile situation that's still safe for everybody.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: Another tactic, J.R. says, was using data to figure out which kinds of stories would perform best with which kinds of voters, so he could feed them more of those stories, even if they were ugly.

GUILLORY: We weren't directly racist, but we were - you know, we just present information in a certain way, and then we let that person's emotions, you know, go wherever, however they're going to react.

SHAW: Now, you should know J.R. is Black, but that didn't seem to make much of a difference.

I guess I'm just trying to understand, like, how you felt about those tactics, like, the race-baiting articles.

GUILLORY: Yeah. You know, I did kind of - I did do - I know at least I did three. We were hard-nosed in trying to get that audience. And we weren't going direct, but, you know, we were coming really close to where anybody who has a 12th grade reading level - they can understand what we were saying.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: But J.R. says he never saw his political native advertising plan come to fruition because in December of 2017 - almost a year after starting to work on 209 Times - he walked away. J.R. says Motec wasn't focused enough on the business - way more concerned with being a celebrity and taking down perceived enemies, even regular people. J.R. says that's when he decided to leave.

GUILLORY: This is a weapon now, man. If we don't use this the right way, people are going to get hurt. And I didn't want to be a part of it anymore.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: (Unintelligible).

GUILLORY: Can you please hold real fast?

SHAW: Of course.

While I'm on hold, let's take a moment to talk about J.R. There were parts of his story that checked out. Like, the cousin at BuzzFeed, he exists. J.R. also gave me text messages with Motec, as well as their Facebook message history - hundreds of messages going back to 2015 - messages about mundane things, like what kind of sandwich to pick up for lunch, and lots of messages about 209 Times talking strategy, SEO, story edits. But for a source that was supposed to be the big, bad whistleblower who seemed to be the source of some of the conspiracy theories I was hearing about 209 Times, I did not see definitive evidence for what he was telling me.

I kept asking for more receipts, and he eventually ghosted me. He never gave proof of his microtargeting methods. I never saw any documentation that he talked to Motec about pay for play, though I did see his pitches for several other get-rich schemes - the day party cruise, marijuana edibles and an investment scheme involving municipal Wi-Fi networks. And those Facebook messages he shared - I noticed the way he strokes Motec's ego, talks about manipulating people. By the summer of 2017, the messages show that Motec's the one pushing J.R. to write articles, and J.R. is hard to get ahold of - not quite co-founder energy.

SANCHEZ: I'm like, this is better than what's on TV right now.

FRANK GAYALDO: How crazy that Jemal is admitting to a reporter. Oh, my gosh. I mean, it's just, wow (laughter).

SHAW: This is Motec and 209 Times reporter Frank Gayaldo. I talked to them about J.R., and they seemed genuinely tickled. They denied almost everything J.R. said - him being a co-founder, the race baiting, the staging of protests, the microtargeting.

SANCHEZ: Our strategy, just so you know, never had anything to do with Google analytics or Facebook algorithms - never.

GAYALDO: Oh, my God.

SHAW: I talked to other 209 Times people, current and former, and they told me the same thing. They said J.R. was involved only in a limited way for the first year. And Motec and Frank, they offered some evidence, like a screenshot of J.R. asking whether 209 Times had an email address. If he was the co-founder, wouldn't he know?

SANCHEZ: Right? Like, this guy's wrote three articles all year. And then, OK, right?

GAYALDO: That we had to edit, that he didn't post himself.

SHAW: And that, yes, J.R. was constantly trying to pitch them on turning a profit. He might have even had his own pay-for-play scheme with 209 Times. But they say he never told them about it. And they certainly never signed up.

GAYALDO: Absolutely, Motec had zero interest in business. You know, I think where Motec dropped the ball a little bit was they're fellow Marines.

SANCHEZ: Yeah.

GAYALDO: I think Motec let his guard down a little bit because I think he had a little bit of a pro bias for Jemal - would you agree with that? - because he was a Marine.

SANCHEZ: Yeah, I would agree with that assessment.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: Obviously, everyone's an unreliable narrator here. It's possible J.R. had a pay-for-play vision that he told Motec about. It's also possible J.R. is posturing as co-founder, trying to snag some shine off of 209 Times' success. And besides the fact that it's just really funny to me that Motec and Frank might be on the other end of a disinformation campaign, it's possible J.R. just really knows how to target an audience with stories they want to hear, stories that confirm the conspiracy theories about 209 Times. And there are people who seem to have fallen for it, including at least one well-respected publication.

If there's one thing I've learned along the way about conspiracy theories is that they can make it harder to see things you don't want to see, that maybe you should be paying attention to, like the BLM protests at the city council meeting. Lots of people told me they felt like Motec had seized on the protesters grievances just to make Michael Tubbs look bad. But I also heard rumors that Motec had actually staged them, like J.R. told me. And he told Michael's campaign the same thing, too. Whether or not Motec was behind the protests, Michael believes they were staged.

TUBBS: There were absolutely deliberate. They were, like, planned, premeditated, and just done to kind of test me, undermine my leadership and credibility. (Unintelligible) Was like, well, why would you protest a young Black mayor? Yeah, if it doesn't make it's 'cause it doesn't make sense.

SHAW: I called Dionne Smith, one of the BLM protesters who was there. Her son, James Rivera, was killed by the police in 2010. I was not looking forward to asking her about some conspiracy theory that felt very besides the point. But I did. I asked if Motec told them to come to the council meeting. And she said Motec is an ally. He's helped them over the years with research and getting the word out. But they showed up on their own that day.

DIONNE SMITH: He never organized nothing that I gave. I organized it in the family.

SHAW: She says she's been protesting police violence almost ever since her son was killed, not just when Michael Tubbs was in office, but the two mayors before him as well. Just months before that meeting in 2017, she told me another man, Colby Friday, had been killed. And she says the violence is ongoing.

SMITH: This is not for show. This not for fame. 'Cause we're not looking for credit and I'm going to let you know that now. I'm not looking for no credit, and I'm not looking for a pity party. We is a family. We're not stupid. We finding our way. We finding our way. We're trying to fight the best way we know how. All of us that was shot down, we're not educated people. All of us that - ain't went to college. But we fighting the best we know how to get justice for our loved one. And we all come together. Motec and nobody can pull us together. The only one pulling us together was pain. Losing our love one bring us together. You know, you can't Google this. You can't Google this pain. So, no, he didn't organize nothing.

SHAW: Maybe Michael, in believing that the protests weren't spontaneous, that they were staged - maybe he missed what was right in front of him - their pain, that they were just trying to get his help.

TUBBS: Yeah, so I'm sorry. Sorry about that.

SHAW: Oh, J.R.'s back from putting me on hold.

Recently, a conspiracy theory scholar told me something I didn't expect - that he didn't want to live in a world without conspiracy theories because you never know when one might be true, which is why I kept thinking about J.R. and his story, especially one part - the reason he says he decided to leave in the end. He thought 209 Times, by attacking ordinary people, was crossing ethical lines, lines that even he couldn't get down with.

GUILLORY: So I was helping my kid with his reading project. I'm outdoors, and he needed a leaf to kind of, you know, write a description of it. Yeah, so sorry.

SHAW: It's funny where people draw the line.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: Next time on INVISIBILIA, the final installment of The Chaos Machine. We look into where 209 Times draws the line, whether they're helping or hurting the community...

BENJAMIN SAFFOLD: You may be disgusted by some of the choices they make. To me, I'd rather be someone who is supporting the good that they do instead of getting rid of 209 Times, which I don't think is the option that Stockton can afford.

SHAW: ...And the movement to stop 209 Times, even with fists.

CHRISTOPHER PRADO: I was just like, so what's up, bro? Like, what's up with all that you were talking about online? And then he's like, well, let's do this right here then.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NATISSE: All right, that's the episode for this week. And now that you've just spent the past 45 minutes listening to people talk about how the mainstream media can do better, just a reminder that we want you to tell us here at INVISIBILIA how to be better, too. Bring it on. Bring the hot takes. We want to hear from you. Please go to npr.org/springsurvey. It's short, it's anonymous, and it really does help us make a better show for you. That's npr.org/springsurvey. Thanks so much.

Today's episode was produced by Liza Yeager, James Kim, Chris Benderev and Rhaina Cohen, with more production, research and reporting help from David Gutherz, Carolyn McCusker, Justine Yan, Theo Greenly and Diba Mohtasham, fact-checking by Billy Brennan, Sarah Knight and Ayda Pourasad.

The people of Stockton are undefeated. We are so grateful to each and every one who spoke to us. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts.

INVISIBILIA is produced by me, Kia Miakka Natisse, 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. Neal Carruth and Steve Nelson are our senior directors 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, Tia Kemp, Jessica Hansen, Robert Benincasa, Neena Pathak, Victor Yvellez and James Sneed. And shout-out to Kelly Prime for helping edit this series.

Music for this episode provided by Yung Kartz; theme music by Infinity Knives. And finally, to see an original illustration for this episode by Qieer Wang, visit npr.org/invisibilia.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NATISSE: We'll see you next week. But before that, here's a sound from one of our listeners. It's a data center in Dallas, Texas.

(SOUNDBITE OF FANS HUMMING)

MICAH SCHWARB: The sound is the fans in all the servers keeping everything cool. Usually they got to blow, you know, as much air as possible to keep everything cold.

NATISSE: That's Micah, our listener, who sent us the sound.

SCHWARB: I work in a data center and thought everyone would find it interesting to hear what it sounds like where the - you know, the, air quote, unquote, internet "lives."

NATISSE: If you all have a sound you want to send to us, please send it over to invisibiliamail@npr.org. We'd love to hear more from you all.

SCHWARB: Y'all have a great day. Bye-bye.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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