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November 24, 2015

A new Boston Globe poll finds that “Massachusetts voters are deeply split over Governor Charlie Baker’s resistance to accepting Syrian refugees in the state.” I wonder what Massachusetts voters would think if they understood what the governor’s position actually is?

While today’s story offers a characterization of Baker’s position, the only quote directly from the governor – who has addressed the issue publicly at least twice - is the “infamous” “No, I’m not interested in accepting refugees from Syria” answer. Here is the actual text of the poll question:

Twenty-five state governors, including Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, have said that they do not want to accept Syrian refugees in their states in the wake of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris. Do you agree or disagree with this stance?

That is not quite Governor Baker’s position, though. It would be difficult to summarize.

“No, I’m not interested in accepting refugees from Syria” is a hell of a line and I quoted it directly from Globe reporting in The Boston Globe Knee Jerks Charlie Baker on the Syrian Refugee Issue. The Globe news article had the quote as Baker’s first remark but it wasn’t the first. Thanks to Adam Reilly of WGBH News, I’ve been able to listen to the entire segment. The question that prompted Baker’s statement was actually the seventh and last question about the refugee issue. But let’s go back to the sixth question:

Q: So as of right now, would you, can we add Massachusetts to the list of states that are saying right now there’s a ban on letting refugees in from Syria?

A: As I said, I would say No as of right now.

Q: No what?

A: No, I’m not interested in accepting refugees from Syria. I would need to know a lot more than I know now before I agree to do anything.

Baker has been criticized for not recognizing that immigration is a federal, not state, issue. So here is the first Q and A from last Monday’s exchange with the press:

Q: I think the first question we want to ask you is about, there’s a number of states Governor and we’d like the Mayor to also jump in on there, that are now saying that they are not going to accept Syrian refugees and the list is growing by the minute. Where do you stand on it, both of you?

A (Baker): I think it’s um, first of all I think any conversation that involves this has to start with whatever process the federal government is going to put in place to vet people through that process and that’s something we’d certainly want to know a lot about. Um, I think at this point in time, ah, we would have to be very cautious about, ah, accepting folks without knowing a lot more about what the federal government’s plan looks like and how it would actually be implemented and executed on.

The entire exchange on the Syrian refugee question continues for about three minutes. The Governor was expressing that he would not favor accepting Syrian refugees unless he could be persuaded by the federal government, which has the legal responsibility, that any refugee has been properly vetted. Baker seemed skeptical about the federal government. The safety of Massachusetts residents was his primary concern. He was emphatically not engaging in the kinds of hysterical comments that have garnered headlines for other national Republicans.

On the very same day that Baker made his initial comments the Boston Globe Editorial Board pounced with Paris attacks: Baker, others wrong to reject Syrian refugees. On November 17 in The Boston Globe Knee Jerks Charlie Baker on the Syrian Refugee Issue I criticized the Editorial Board for its own knee-jerkism. I argued that the Editorial Board apparently hadn’t read how its own reporters had covered the story in Baker opposed to allowing Syrian refugees in Mass. for now. Since then I’ve listened to the order and context of the original press conference, and I now think that the news story itself improperly emphasized the “I’m not interested” remark by making it appear that it was Baker’s initial and most representative response.

The Editorial Board was apparently quite proud of its product though because it was still tweeting it out days later. Then, on November 20 Globe editorial writer Alan Wirzbicki wrote Baker’s refugee stance undercuts his image in which he criticized Baker’s “now infamous” statement that he's "not interested in accepting refugees from Syria" into Massachusetts "as of right now." He noted that Massachusetts had been accepting Syrian refugees for years without complaint from Baker. “What changed, ostensibly, was last week's deadly Paris attacks.”

Well yes, the slaughter of 130 innocent lives would be new information. But let’s look a bit more closely at the choice of the word “ostensibly.” According to Merriam-Webster one of the common meanings of “ostensible” is “plausible rather than demonstratively true.” There is the suspicion of misdirection or falsity. (The Wirzbicki article is “ostensibly” about Baker’s image but really about something else. You be the judge).

Wirzbicki argues that Baker’s “data-driven” approach, if true, should result in his freezing acceptance of travelers with French or Belgian passports.  That is because the Paris attackers were European and not Syrian. Does that mean that Baker is in the wrong because no Syrians have thus far been shown to be involved in the Paris attacks? Only if you believe that events that have not happened yet but could happen will never happen – things like the winter of 2015 or even the Paris attacks, for instance.

Most people would base their opinion of Governor Baker’s refugee position on news accounts. Having seen a number of accounts, not just those from the Globe, I would judge that representation as mixed with the “I’m not interested” line being featured most prominently. Elite opinion, at least as represented by the Globe Editorial Board, is just plain wrong. So if a pollster asks the wrong question to a misinformed public, what result would we get?

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I had a good turkey story today but the piece was already too long. With that in mind though, and I'm sure I speak for all the MassPoliticsProfs, I'd like to say we are thankful for our readers and the chance to present our views and yes, argue with you. Have a glorious Thanksgiving.

Syrian refugees, Boston Globe, Charlie Baker

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