Sunday, CNN aired an hourlong special titled “What Happened to San Francisco,” in which reporter Sara Sidner spoke to Mayor London Breed and a host of her ideological allies, all of whom offered some version of the following message: It’s time for the city to take a “tough love” approach with its homeless residents.
CNN noted early in the program that San Francisco’s rates of violent crime are low when compared with other major U.S. cities, and that property crime rates — while higher than in other cities — are comparable to pre-pandemic numbers. That cleared the way for what the network clearly wanted to focus on: public drug use and homelessness. A quick block of time was dedicated to car break-ins in the middle of the special, but the majority of the hour was spent on homelessness and drugs.
CNN gathered a smattering of quotes in which individuals insinuated, or said outright, that the city is too permissive with homeless residents. Breed bemoaned the disconnect between how much the city spends on homelessness and the continued presence of encampments, and several small-business owners detailed their day-to-day challenges. Deli Board’s Adam Mesnick (of BetterSoma Twitter fame) said homelessness is “a drug and mental illness problem” as opposed to a housing problem, and former Mayor Willie Brown discussed what he described as “the city’s inability to force anyone to accept help.”
Tanya Tilghman of Mothers Against Drug Addiction and Deaths offered the strongest call to action, telling CNN, “You should be arresting people for using illegal drugs, not watching people use illegal drugs.”
Many of the arguments for a tough-love approach are compelling. It’s not hard to find people in the city who agree the status quo is unacceptable, and CNN interviewed multiple unhoused individuals who said they had come to San Francisco because they believed the city, out of a place of compassion, would allow them to use drugs indefinitely. One specifically cited the availability of “cheap drugs,” and another said, “There’s a lot more assistance out here” than in other cities.
Where CNN ran into problems was its inability to engage with the most compelling arguments against the tough-love approach. If tough love means incarcerating users, well, study after study and analysis after analysis show that drugs will always win the war on drugs. CNN did not mention any of the relevant literature showing that locking up drug users is extremely expensive and does very little to curtail drug use in the broader populace, nor did Sidner meaningfully debate with any of her sources on the subject.
If tough love means an initial arrest and then diversion to a court-ordered substance abuse treatment program, or perhaps placement into a conservatorship, several questions still need to be addressed. Does the city have the necessary infrastructure to handle an influx of individuals sent to treatment programs? (Likely not.) Does state law even allow for conservatorship in a way San Francisco officials would find useful? (Not right now, at least.) Are we even sure that compelled treatment works, or does entering treatment need to be a personal choice for it to be successful? (Unclear.)
These are all weighty questions that CNN didn’t attempt to engage with.
If the purpose of the special was to present a comprehensive and balanced picture of the city’s homelessness crisis, the network came up short on both counts. The special cannot be considered comprehensive if it strongly suggests that tough love is the obvious answer and then declines to discuss what implementing such an approach would require. San Francisco voters have arguably already decided they want to see more tough love — in 2022, District Attorney Chesa Boudin was recalled; just months later, his more moderate successor, Brooke Jenkins, was reelected, and two moderate Board of Supervisors candidates (Joel Engardio and Matt Dorsey) defeated progressive opponents to win office.
It’s time now to discuss what the implementation of this group’s policy agenda looks like. “San Franciscans are fed up” is old news and incomplete reporting in 2023, yet that’s as far as CNN went. The special, to its credit, was much better than most other national coverage of San Francisco, but it was still negligibly additive.
The network also stumbled on ideological balance. The most obvious attempt at achieving it was CNN’s choice to feature the city’s Coalition on Homelessness. Executive Director Jennifer Friedenbach offered some pushback on the idea that a more stringent approach will have an impact, arguing that it’s wishful thinking to believe that “if you make it uncomfortable for [homeless people], they will simply disappear.”
But immediately after Friedenbach delivered that quote, CNN cut back to Sidner’s conversation with Brown. She asked the former mayor, “Do you think that the perpetuating of the homeless issue and the drug issue is partly through the very people that say they’re helping?” — teeing up Brown to unload on homelessness activists.
Overall, there were far more proponents of the tough-love approach than there were skeptics in the one hour of programming. Now, that’s perfectly acceptable if the purpose of the special is not balanced, comprehensive reporting but instead political advocacy. I don’t know whether Sidner aligns more closely with the city’s moderate faction or progressive faction, but I do know that early in the special, she listed “ideology” alongside COVID-19 and fentanyl as factors that have “shaken up” the city “in the worst way.” If that line sounds familiar, it’s because the city’s moderates frequently argue that progressives are too ideological and inappropriately prioritize dogma over pragmatism. (Sidner did not respond to an SFGATE request for comment in time for publication.)
To lay my own ideological cards on the table, I do not neatly align with either the moderate or progressive faction of city politics. I believe each group has valid criticisms of the other, and on this particular issue, moderates have yet to satisfactorily answer the practical, nonideological questions related to tougher policing of drug use. Any form of successful political advocacy must address obvious counterarguments, and the CNN special did not.
San Francisco’s approach to drug policy is in a bizarre state of limbo, as it’s neither harm reduction (the city closed its only safe consumption site last year) nor tough love. The CNN special inhabits a similar space: not balanced or thorough enough to classify as comprehensive journalism but not persuasive enough to classify as successful advocacy.
Source : SFGate