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Journalismism

The AP Deserves the Pulitzer Prize for Propaganda

A recent article about the 'decline' of San Francisco hits literally all of the bigoted tropes you can imagine.

Screenshot of KPIX story about homeless encampents in San Francisco.
KPIX

For months now, the mainstream press has been hitting one theme particularly hard: San Francisco is being thrown to the wolves.

2021 has seen story after story about waves of shoplifting and looting, out-of-control vagrancy, and a general breakdown of civilization. It’s enough to make a San Francisco native like me worry about what’s going on over there. Unfortunately, these stories often seem to share some common features, like a flexible relationship to the truth and a reliance on the same right-wing law-and-order narratives that have long plagued crime journalism.

That’s why I took particular notice of a story in the Associated Press over the weekend with the headline “San Francisco’s vaunted tolerance dims amid brazen crimes.”

The story, by  Olga R. Rodriguez and Janie Har, hits just about every propagandistic trope you can imagine. Let’s go through them.

An emphasis on rich people’s comfort. One thing these sorts of stories frequently do is turn overwhelmingly to the cushiest members of society for sourcing. So it proves here. Some of the named sources in this piece include: a woman who manages a bar in “the trendy Hayes Valley neighborhood” (trust me, as someone who grew up a few blocks from Hayes Valley, it is not “trendy,” just hyper-gentrified); Patrick Wolff, a “retired professional chess player” who turns out to have also managed a multibillion-dollar hedge fund; the owner of the aforementioned Hayes Valley bar who “moved to wine country five months ago” (lol); and the president of both the Hayes Valley Merchants Association and the Hayes Valley neighborhood association. (For balance, Rodriguez and Har also throw in an “administrative assistant” and “project manager.”) All of them hit the same beats: there are too many homeless people, the city is scary, the streets are filthy, it’s becoming unbearable. In other words, the piece is tilted almost entirely towards people who are either very wealthy or whose livelihood depends on the comfort of wealthy people.

Homeless people do not actually deserve a voice. Another thing you frequently see is that homeless people are discussed entirely as a faceless, raving, dangerous menace, a subhumanoid class whose very existence is an offense to decency. So it goes in this story. Here, for instance, is a typical anecdote:

The day before he moved, Cassanego stepped out to walk his dogs and saw a man who “looked like a zombie,” with his pants down to his knees and bleeding from where a syringe was stuck on his hip. A woman cried out nearby in shock.

“I went upstairs, and I told my wife, ‘We’re leaving now! This city is done!’” he said.

Two things. First, “looked like a zombie.” Homeless people are not humans—the message cannot be clearer. Second, it must be nice to be able to pack up and move to wine country in literally a day because a homeless man made you feel bad. Did Cassanego ever try to do anything to help homeless people in the city, or did he just hightail it to Napa? We’ll never know. 

There are zero interviews in this story with any homeless people, or anyone who advocates for them. The authors have a couple of lines vaguely gesturing towards the reality that most of the people on the streets in San Francisco suffer from mental illness and drug addiction, but that’s about it.

Facts are less important than anecdotes. I love this part of the article (emphasis mine): 

In a sign of civic frustration, San Franciscans will vote in June on whether to recall District Attorney Chesa Boudin, a former public defender elected in 2019 whose critics say he’s too lenient on crime. His supporters say there’s no crime surge, and that corporate wage theft is a more pressing issue than cases like that of a San Francisco woman finally arrested after stealing more than $40,000 in goods from a Target over 120 visits. She was released by a judge and arrested again on suspicion of shoplifting after she failed to show up to get her court-ordered ankle monitor.

“His supporters say,” you can hear the authors almost sneering. “Corporate theft is a bigger deal than one shoplifter, what a stupid thought. And crime is down, what nonsense.” How odd, then, that they literally confirm this a few paragraphs down! (Again, emphasis mine.)

Reports of larceny theft — shoplifting from a person or business — are up nearly 17% to more than 28,000 from the same time last year. They remain lower than the more than 40,000 larceny theft cases reported in 2019. Requests to clean dirty streets and sidewalks are the majority of calls to 311, the city’s services line.

Overall, though, crime has been trending down for years. More than 45,000 incidents have been reported so far this year, up from last year when most people were shut indoors, but below the roughly 60,000 complaints in previous years.

So crime declined during the height pandemic, and has now crept up again, but is still lower than it was two years ago, and is down overall. (Shoplifting has actually been trending down for decades.) Sounds like those crazy Boudin supporters are…correct! Not that this is allowed to get in the way of the AP’s thesis.

—Overheated language is suddenly fine! Outlets like the AP supposedly pride themselves on their rigorously neutral and impartial language, but when it comes to law and order, that all flies out the window. Check out some of these ostentatiously loaded passages:

San Franciscans take pride in their liberal political bent and generously approve tax measures for schools and the homeless. They accept that trashy streets, tent encampments and petty crime are the price to pay to live in an urban wonderland.

Apart from the very weird lines about “trashy streets” as part of an “urban wonderland,” note the explicit framing here: even the SF pinkos want the riffraff out!!! This suggests only a passing engagement with the far more complicated nature ofSan Francisco’s brand of liberalism, but no matter.

“Pramanik, a project manager who moved to the U.S. from India in her teens, cheered Trump’s failed reelection bid but says she realized too late that Democratic activists have hijacked her city.

“If I say I want laws enforced, I’m racist,” she said. “I’m like, ‘No, I’m not racist. There’s a reason I live in San Francisco.’”

The term “Democratic activists” is not in quotes, meaning that the authors came up with it all on their own. The same goes for “hijacked.” Interesting!

Tunnel vision reigns. The San Francisco Bay Area has some of the highest income inequality in America. I have watched with despair as the city I come from has been transformed into a playground for tech megalomaniacs who have helped drive the cost of living into the stratosphere. Might any of that have to do with a surge in homelessness and mental illness on the streets? Might the total lack of support people get in this country be contributing to this situation? Don’t turn to the AP for help, because they won’t get into of it. Instead, they are content to pander to the real victims, like hedge fund veterans.

I don’t want to discount that people have had bad experiences here. I grew up not far from where most of this story is centered. San Francisco has had a large homeless population for as long as I have been alive. Nobody wants to live in a world like that. But there is a way to grapple with these problems that actually accounts for the humanity of the people at the center of them—and that thinks about a larger societal way of solving them—and another that lazily feeds into the same bigoted ugliness that has led us directly into the crisis we’re now confronting. We know which choice the AP made this weekend.