Eric Starkman
Eric Starkman

It started with a tweet last Wednesday by Gabe Schneider, a freelance reporter and Columbia Journalism Review contributor, hinting he’d uncovered something nefarious: “In-N-Out added a new item to their secret menu,” Schneider tweeted along with a photo showing that the burger chain contributed $25,000 to the California Republican Party.

The tweet found its way to Eric Bauman, chairman of the California Democratic Committee, who nine hours later tweeted: “Et tu In-N-Out? Tens of thousands of dollars donated to the California Republican Party … it’s time to #BoycottInNOut — let Trump and his cronies support these creeps … perhaps animal style!” 

Schneider and Bauman were perhaps too lazy to look up or chose to ignore, that In-N-Out this election cycle also gave $80,000 to Californians for Jobs and a Strong Economy, a committee focused on electing business-friendly Democrats to the state Legislature. The media, increasingly unable to resist letting the facts get in the way of a good story, began a frenzy to cover a boycott that never remotely gained traction or support.

Fortune was among the first out of the box, with this click bait headline: “Left-Leaning Fast Food Fans Lose Appetite After In-N-Out Burger Donates To California Republicans.” The story didn’t quote or identify any left-leaning fans supporting a boycott, but that didn’t stop the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and a slew of other publications from piling on. None of them identified or quoted customers supporting a boycott. The best two reporters from the L.A. Times could come up with was a Democrat customer who called the boycott “silly.”

Bauman’s message had a hidden undertone the media readily understood. Trump’s base includes Evangelical Christians, who oppose same-sex marriage and other bible prohibited practices. Chick-fil-A, a Christian run company, is constantly attacked by liberals for its opposition to same-sex marriages, and El Coyote, a Mexican chain, was subject to protests after it was revealed that a Los Angeles manager had donated $100 to support a California law banning same-sex marriage. Same-sex marriage is understandably an issue of considerable importance to Bauman; the award-winning robo caller lives in North Hollywood with his husband and his late mother’s partner Trisha.

In-N-Out is a privately-owned company run by a conservative Christian family that prints bible verses on its packaging. The media was judicious about its references to the family’s religious values but found creative ways to make the point. The New York Times, for example, when referring to Lynsi Snyder, the chain’s president, linked to this inspirational video she made for the GodTube channel.

The media ignored another side of In-N-Out. Glassdoor ranks the company No. 4 on its 2018 list of “Best Places to Work.” The company pays crew members considerably higher wages than McDonald’s and Burger King and they often get promoted up through the ranks to positions paying more than six figures. In-N-Out promoted fresh ingredients long before the trend took hold. It earned its cult-like following because its burgers are consistently pretty darn good and popular even with entitled celebrities.

The California Democratic party was quick to distance itself from Bauman’s call for a boycott, saying it was just his personal opinion. And Monday night, Bauman dropped his call for a boycott, suggesting he wasn’t really all that serious in the first place. In fact, he plans to take his entire staff for a meal at In-N-Out.

“I put one tweet out a 10:30 at night and it turned into a whole thing,” he said. “We’ve raised so much money in small donations as a result of that one tweet, and so many people have engaged with that tweet, almost a million people, so it’s amazing how it became this big boycott.”

At the end of the day, the media was responsible for a significant Democratic fund-raising effort promoting a nonexistent boycott of an exemplary company whose progressive HR practices are unparalleled in the fast food industry. The entire ordeal is an example of why many Americans distrust the media and swallow President Trump’s claims that reporters are an enemy of the people.

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Eric Starkman, a former financial journalist with major newspapers in the U.S. and Canada, managed an eponymous PR and crisis communications firm for more than 20 years.