The Chronicle’s Homeless Scandal

As has already been observed in these pages, the SF Chronicle (which, let’s not forget, is stuck in a bit of a grim spiral) is not above scandal-mongering for the purpose of boosting traffic and reactions.

We first noted this with Matier & Ross’ Critical Mass coverage, and now see the pattern repeating with CW Nevius’ crusade against the homeless.

(And while we’re at it, let’s get the issue of my bias out of the way right now. I ride a bike, I’m partisan on that topic. I’m appalled by the sight of preventable human suffering; I’m partisan on that topic too.)

The most frustrating thing about Nevius’ coverage is that it could be good, and the topic is important, but it winds up falling short. It hijacks public outrage and yokes it to an agenda, rather than deepening discourse around the issue.

To his credit: He goes after some important topics — public health and safety regarding injected drug use, questions of why the homeless don’t always use shelters, etc.

But you have to wonder about his intent when he cites “informal” polling on SFGate.com (which the Web site itself disclaims as “strictly surveys of those who choose to participate and … therefore not valid statistical samples”) to be overwhelming evidence that “residents have had it with aggressive panhandlers, street squatters and drug users.”

The huge outpouring of online commentary — hot damn, 900+ comments! — is cited, too, as journalistically meaningful.

In fact, it’s more meaningful as an example of successful troll-baiting that inflates postings — and derails meaningful discourse — with dreary sniping by a handful of serial posters.

The SF Weekly took a swing not long afterwards. While not necessarily deepening the actual coverage, their spoof — “CW Obvious Discovers Bums in SF” — highlights the pure opportunism at work here.

Keeping in mind that Nevius is a columnist rather than a beat reporter, the Chronicle’s approach to this complex topic is questionable.

In terms of visceral emotion, it appeals to a sense of disgust and disdain for the homeless themselves, rather than to the — quite frankly — nobler sense of civic and humanitarian responsibility.

Furthermore, by proposing the criminalization of homelessness in a front-page opinion column — rather than undertaking a serious investigation of why 30 years of punitive San Francisco homeless policy have failed — the newspaper reveals itself as basely partisan and also lazy.

Where, for example, amidst the eight articles returned by the search phrase “nevius homeless” on SFGate (all in the past month only; the other 13 are letters to the editor, op-eds or blog entries), is an analysis of Mayor Gavin Newsom’s once high-profile “Care Not Cash” legislation?

Nowhere. Not at all. Not a single mention of a program so controversial, it virtually defined the 2003 SF mayoral race.

We do get plenty of spin-doctoring, though.

Consider today’s column, a startling exercise in poor taste and fear mongering, in which the unsolved stabbing deaths of three homeless individuals in Golden Gate Park are used as a chance to to rehash the older-than-dirt revelation that, by golly, there are “growing tensions between residents and homeless campers in the park.”

How inconvenient that the same people who root through your trash are now being murdered on your front steps! If we just get them out of our parks, surely everything will be better.

A situation this serious requires thoughtful, clear reportage that breaks through stereotyping and examines the context, successes and failures of homeless politics in San Francisco. Anything less smacks of opportunism, baiting and worse.

Given the Chronicle’s dire financial straits, it’s also fascinating to consider this style of coverage — see also Matier & Ross on Critical Mass — as a type of convergence strategy that jacks up pageviews and newsstand impulse buys though scandal-mongering online and off.

The formula works like this:

  • Start with a controversial topic
  • Assign not a reporter but a columnist to cover it
  • Play the coverage up big, and in particular leverage the controversy online to generate pageviews and comments — which can then be repurposed to the print edition

What does all this say about the future of mainstream online media, in San Francisco if not elsewhere?

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4 Responses to The Chronicle’s Homeless Scandal

  1. admin says:

    This essay has been edited and revised for clarity, but also to soft-pedal the vitriol and elevate the discourse.

  2. K Gray says:

    I agree that the entire series or “campaign” is actually more of a marketing survey than an actual attempt to create public dialogue. The Chronicle can now prove that there is an interest in articles about homelessness. That’s all, really. They can’t even really prove that there is any support for their own editorial position on homelessness, since some of those 900 comments were related to homeless people’s behavior, not on strategies to mitigate the circumstances of homelessness.

    A cynical but effective strategy to determine what will sell more papers, that’s all. If they had received 900 comments about anything, they would create a campaign about it.

  3. Classic, I suppose, for newspaper honchos suffering from their own pretty serious “fear of falling” to cheer themselves up by scapegoating the very poor. The worst fans of scapegoating are middle-class hacks who are afraid of losing their unfair advantages in life and who know they wouldn’t manage well if forced to struggle along at the bottom.

    It’s the same defensive drive that causes some healthy people to distinguish frantically between themselves and any friend or relative has come down with cancer or diabetes: what did the friend do “wrong” to become sick that they themselves didn’t do? I.e. how can they assure themselves of still being safe?

    What’s strange is, the same newspaper is covering the foreclosure crisis with great sympathy. How can people who lose their homes to foreclosure all be dignified victims if people who are already homeless are all incontinent druggie criminals as the Chronicle suggests?

  4. Pingback: Illuminated Media » Blog Archive » Sacred Cows and Chicken-Fried Steak (or, the Bonfire of Objectivity)

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