How to turn a $500 donation into a major media buy

Everyone loves firefighters. Especially me. Volunteer firefighters are my heroes.

But recently the San Diego media oddly hyped a story of a San Diego firefighter charity — odd because it's reported at all as news. The U-T San Diego made it a front-page story in the local section. Several TV stations also did a segment on firefighter generosity.

Not that the story itself wasn't newsworthy — it was, from a public interest standpoint. Donna Poythress, a woman with little income or assets, had her modest motor home burn up in the driveway of her aunt's home. The motor home was destroyed, and the house suffered some damage as well. Poythress lost all her personal possessions. Total damage and loss (including to her aunt’s home) came to about $20,000.

As the U-T reported, neighbors spontaneously provided immediate donations to help Poythress out. Such examples of neighborly assistance probably should be shared with the public more often.

But the bulk of the U-T story became a tale of generous firefighters. One gets the impression from the headline that the attending firefighters dug deep into their pockets and handed the lady much needed cash. Such was not the case.

The San Diego firefighter union has a charity fund for helping fire victims. And, based on the amount of this disbursal, it's not overly generous. It appears the union made a donation from the fund for (drum-roll) $500, which was used to buy Poythress personal items to replace some of her losses.

At least the U-T article gave due credit to the neighbors who pitched in on their own. Also mentioned was a business that offered to do some home repairs for free to help.

But the Fox 5 website write-up dwelt on the union donation. Neighbors’ donations were not mentioned. The Fox 5 story did not name the business that is repairing Poythress' aunt's home for free — a donation that is worth many times what the firefighters donated. Fortunately the U-T story did mention the business: Har-Bro Restoration.

But is a $500 donation from a labor union worthy of this level of media coverage? Would any other charity or business get such adoring publicity for such a small donation? I think not.

The firefighter union rightly figures that making donations to such victims is good policy. And I don't fault them in the least for such a decision, even though positive publicity doubtless was their goal. Nothing inherently wrong with that.

What bothers me is that the press takes such a minor donation and blows it up into a big story. Stated differently, no other organization would have gotten such coverage for $500. Nor should they.

More than likely the media got the story from the union's media outreach efforts. From the Fox 5 video, it appears that the firefighters staged a press conference to publicize the gift. Again, we are talking about a $500 gift.

Here's another wrinkle: The truly generous neighbors gave Poythress stuff that they cannot deduct off their income taxes. These were personal gifts, not charitable contributions. But apparently the firefighters ran their contributions through their own controlled charity that is used for orchestrating publicity. Hence they got to deduct such contributions for tax purposes, thereby cutting the donation's cost by up to a third.

Indeed, it's not clear if the firefighters themselves even made the contributions to the union's "charity" — it could have been donations from well-meaning souls to the fund, made at the firefighters’ request.

Let me repeat: I do not fault the firefighter union for attempting to garner positive publicity by making donations. Businesses, celebrities and politicians do this all the time.

But the media should be a bit more circumspect about such self-serving generosity. I suspect they are more cautious and rightly concerned about being used by such PR efforts most of the time. Perhaps, when it comes to firefighters and their labor union, the customary editorial firewalls (so to speak) don't provide the usual safeguards.

Rider is chairman of the San Diego Tax Fighters.

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