Supporters of an airport at El Toro have long argued that El Toro's opponents have a secret plan: to expand John Wayne Airport and, so, destroy Newport Beach.
It's a powerful emotional argument and one that generates huge political contributions to the pro-airport movement; scared people give money, and the people of Newport Beach have given plenty.
But it was an argument without any evidence—until Oct. 6. On that day, Los Angeles Times staffer Jean O. Pasco reported that South County Assemblywoman Pat Bates had told an Assembly committee that expanding John Wayne would allow the county to meet projected air-traffic demand.
It was the quote heard round the world. And it was wrong.
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Bates denies she ever made the statement. In an Oct. 8 press release, she said, "We categorically do not support any expansion of John Wayne."
There were at least three reasons to doubt Pasco's version of events. First, reporting on the same meeting, The Orange County Register made no mention of Bates' shocking quote, nor even of Bates herself. Second, no South County official advocates expanding John Wayne Airport. Their view is more novel: don't build El Toro, don't expand John Wayne Airport, and instead look to regional airports—at March Air Force Base, Ontario, San Bernardino, Palmdale and Victorville, for example—marketing themselves aggressively as cargo and air-travel options for Orange Countians.
Finally, a transcript of the meeting obtained by the South County cities suggests that Pasco got the story wrong. According to the transcript, Bates actually said county officials have estimated air-passenger demand at 12 million passengers per year—3 million less than John Wayne Airport's capacity. Bates observed that one solution to the county's air-traffic demand would be to lift the cap on John Wayne. But in a crucial comment elided from Pasco's version of the meeting, Bates concluded, "I don't frankly believe that is the answer."
The final blow to Pasco's story came from Pasco herself. Sort of. Writing for the Times Oct. 9 edition, Pasco included Bates' statement at the Assembly meeting—"I'm not suggesting the people of Newport Beach should have to endure that expansion."
But the quote was buried in the story, and preceded by nothing like an acknowledgement that, having gotten the story wrong, Pasco had complicated an already difficult story. Nowhere did the Times note that its reporter's error had fueled conspiracy theories among Newport Beach residents already given to the public-policy analogue of anal probes, flying saucers, and alien abduction. Indeed, her Oct. 9 article seemed to absolve Pasco of responsibility for the Bates misquote. In a clever use of the passive voice, Pasco wrote, "Bates said her comments were misunderstood."
What's clear now, is that only Pasco misunderstood what Bates said. And by Oct. 9, the damage of that misunderstanding was done. Newport Beach activists used Pasco's misquote to attack Bates and the entire anti-airport movement. "The Pat Bates solution is Playa del Tustin," said Dave Ellis, a consultant for George Argyros and the Newport Beach-based Airport Working Group, in Pasco's Oct. 6 article. Ellis then says expanding John Wayne to 24 million passengers per year would require (in Pasco's words) "bulldozing an area between Tustin and the Balboa Peninsula."
A day later, the Costa Mesa/Newport Beach Daily Pilot ratcheted up the anti-South County rhetoric. Pilot reporter Susan McCormack followed up Pasco's story by quoting former Newport Mayor Tom Edwards. "What we are really seeing is what [South County's] strategy has been all along—to expand John Wayne," said Edwards.
To be honest, Ellis and Edwards have been accusing South County officials of advocating the expansion of John Wayne Airport for years. That Bates never said she wanted to see John Wayne expanded won't stop bomb throwers like Ellis and Edwards from future attacks on South County. It's been their strategy all along: scare Newport Beach residents into thinking those living south of the 55 freeway want to destroy them.
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