Letters from the West

Chobani lawsuit against InfoWars: Standing up for the truth about Idaho and company

Gov. Butch Otter and Hamdi Ulukaya, Chobani CEO, at the 2012 grand opening of Chobani’s yogurt manufacturing plant in Twin Falls.
Gov. Butch Otter and Hamdi Ulukaya, Chobani CEO, at the 2012 grand opening of Chobani’s yogurt manufacturing plant in Twin Falls. kjones@idahostatesman.com

Chobani CEO Hamdi Uluckaya’s explanation of why his company brought a defamation lawsuit against Alex Jones and InfoWars was straightforward Tuesday evening.

“I am fine with criticism. But there’s a line. We’re living in a civil society,” Ulukaya told Time at its gala honoring its Top 100 most influential people.

The Turkish immigrant who invested $550 million in Idaho and hired 1,000 workers at the biggest yogurt plant in the world in Twin Falls told Time he had “no other choice than letting the courts decide.”

“It’s important we keep the ethics of reporting,” Ulukaya said.

Alex Jones hosts a daily radio show broadcast nationally and on KIDO in Boise. He’s known for such claims as saying 9/11 was an inside job by the U.S. government and that top Democrats were involved in a child-pornography ring at a Washington, D.C. pizzeria. Jones later acknowledged that “pizzagate,” as it came to be known, was untrue and he apologized to the owner of the pizzeria.

But Jones did not apologize to Chobani, Ulukaya, Idaho or Twin Falls. Instead he doubled down in a video saying, with no evidence, that billionaire George Soros, a frequent target of the right, was really behind the Chobani lawsuit.

The Chobani lawsuit, filed Monday in district court in Twin Falls, said Jones, his network and InfoWars’ Twitter feed and YouTube channel repeatedly published false information linking Chobani, Ulukaya and Idaho to a sexual assault case involving refugee children at a Twin Falls apartment complex.

One story used the June 2016 sexual assault by three refugee boys against a 5-year-old girl to attack Twin Falls and Chobani for hiring refugees and, it said, bringing crime and disease. Earlier this month, the three boys, ages 14, 10 and 7, each pleaded guilty to one or more felony charges.

But as I reported in November, the refugees had no connection to Chobani. Breitbart reporter Lee Stranahan said the news website picked Chobani because Ulukaya had urged businesses to follow his lead and hire refugees.

“The obvious thing was political connections and globalism,” said Stranahan. He wrote that the sexual assault was “a situation connected to the drive for cheap labor by the local food-processing industry that Chobani is a major part of.”

Chobani hired 300 refugees at its plant and, along with the other workers, paid far higher than then-average wage in the Magic Valley. That helped increase the area’s overall wages as unemployment dropped from 7 percent to 3 percent.

Ulukaya went further, sharing his profits and ownership with his employees. But Breitbart, InfoWars and others sought to turn what Idaho Gov. Butch Otter dubbed the “Magic Valley miracle” into a nightmare.

The stories that spread through the “fake news” universe linked Ulukaya, refugees and Twin Falls to extreme Islam and terrorism. The reports led to death threats against Twin Falls Mayor Shawn Barigar.

KIDO Radio morning host Kevin Miller played coverage of Ulukaya’s response on his show Wednesday. He asked listeners to comment. Several said on Facebook they supported Jones and didn’t want the station to drop Jones’ program.

Miller didn’t take sides.

“On one hand the truth has to be told,” he told his listeners. “On the other there has to be responsibility.”

A caller who described himself as “Russell in Kuna” said “whoever is at fault, they should pay the price.”

I think Russell spoke for many people in Idaho who might not even like yogurt or care about the specifics of the case.

“If there are boycotts and it’s making Idaho look bad across the country … let’s get to the truth,” he told Miller.

CBS News program “60 Minutes” profiled Ulukaya earlier this month and talked to Otter.

“I think he cares about his employees, whether they be refugees or they be folks that were born 10 miles from where they’re working,” Otter told “60 Minutes.” “I believe his advocacy for that person is no different. And there’s nothing wrong with that.”

Republican state Rep. Steve Hartgen represents Twin Falls and used to be the publisher of the Times-News newspaper. He knows the law around libel and defamation and believes Chobani has a case.

Hartgen praised Otter’s statement supporting Ulukaya, as well as the governor’s position pressing for more vetting of refugees so people are confident about the safety of people who come to the U.S.

But he expressed the same kind of concerns about Idaho’s image that he and Republicans have had since the 1980s, when white supremacist Richard Butler burned a cross near Twin Falls.

“I think Idaho public officials are watching this closely,” Hartgen said. “We should be careful to encourage the positive side of economic and social growth.”

Newcomers, including refugees, have the responsibility to assimilate into their new communities, Hartgen said, But we have the responsibility to make them comfortable and welcome.

We also have the responsibility to hold people, including journalists like me, accountable for our work. The First Amendment to the Constitution gives all of us a wide berth to express ourselves. But it doesn’t protect a reckless disregard for the truth.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker