The Chronicle Sinks to a New Low

by Randy Shaw on October 5, 2007

In a transparent effort to boost its Internet readership, the San Francisco Chronicle is actively urging people to send e-mails describing how much they hate homeless people. Stirring up feelings of contempt toward our fellow humans is quite a journalistic endeavor. And what a wonderful way to convey a “love thy neighbor” sensibility! One can endorse police involvement in getting homeless people off sidewalks without denigrating people’s humanity. But like a right-wing “shock jock,” the Chronicle wants readers to not simply nod in agreement but to go to their computer and fire a zinging e-mail attack. These e-mails help fill up the paper’s news section, and are used to demonstrate to advertisers that the Chronicle has great interactivity with its readers. And with the Chronicle’s Season of Sharing campaign starting next month, the paper feels compelled to spew its maximum venom against the poor now, so it can make nice come Thanksgiving and Christmas.

After 25 years of covering homelessness, the San Francisco Chronicle continues to define the problem as problem street behavior. Forget the billions of dollars in federal housing cuts, and ignore the fact that America has far fewer housing units than necessary to house its population— the Chronicle sees homelessness as chiefly caused by troubled and/or anti-social individuals who only need “tough love” to get off the streets.

It’s an attractive argument. It gets the government off the hook and places all the blame on homeless persons themselves for not ensuring a roof over their heads.

It also makes wealthy newspaper owners feel less guilty about the thousands of people living on San Francisco’s streets. Higher taxes on the wealthy are not a solution, because homeless persons want to be anti-social and live out in the cold.

I thought we were beyond such arguments in “progressive” San Francisco.

It is no surprise that most San Franciscans want the city to take stronger measures to eliminate problem street behavior. The federal government has not sufficiently funded affordable housing since homelessness began in 1982, and even many progressives figure they can’t wait any longer for “humane” solutions.

But there is a difference between endorsing police efforts to control homelessness and portraying those on the streets as the equivalent of vermin. And to aggressively promote such depictions, as the Chronicle has done, is indefensible.

Already, the Chronicle’s recent coverage on homelessness has engendered comments from readers on SFGate like “there is a time and place for police brutality,” “with a bit of luck, they’ll get pneumonia and die at SF General,” “it’s time to just pile these tax flushing homeless into a camp, or perhaps pile them up for landfill to build affordable housing” and “feed the homeless to the hungry!”

Absent from reporter C.W. Nevius’ accounts of the situation in the South of Market is the fact that the Chronicle newsroom is adjacent to the 5th Street area he writes about. I’ve heard reports that Nevius is now a hero in the newsroom, having helped eliminate the poor from the view of the paper’s reporters.

You would never know from the Chronicle’s recent reporting that San Francisco has housed 2062 Care not Cash recipients since 2004, and over 4000 homeless single adults overall. Better to foster the impression that homeless people do not want housing, allowing the attitudes of a small minority to define the entire group.

I can’t wait for the Chronicle to start its Season of Sharing program, which profiles what the paper would describe as the “deserving poor.” Editors will have to be careful to keep the down on the luck stories of the “bad” homeless distinct from the “unfortunate” homeless families for whom it tries to raise money.

The San Francisco Chronicle is desperate for money, and I guess should not be surprised that they have gone to the age old strategy—-beating on a politically disenfranchised group—to reverse their losses.

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