Yes, Chuck, enough is enough

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Is Chuck Nevius...
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...the new Ken Garcia?
It's bad enough that the San Francisco Chronicle and its columnist Chuck Nevius have been demonizing the homeless for months in a highly sensation and misleading fashion. But in today's paper, they have the gall to claim -- with little substantiation -- that San Franciscans are no longer tolerant of the poor and now support the homeless crackdown being pushed by the Chronicle and Mayor Gavin Newsom (and let's not forget the Examiner's Ken Garcia, whose old anti-homeless columns for the Chron Nevius has now revived).
And when I asked Nevius about why he's chosen the homeless for his punching bag, he said his coverage has been driven by the "400-plus" blog comments they've gotten complaining about the homeless. You see, he's just giving the people what they want. As he wrote to me, "I understand that not everyone agrees, but I've been at this for a while, over 20 years, and my experience is that newspapers can't create issues -- no matter how we try. We can only follow them."
Well, Chuck, I've been at this for almost 20 years myself, long enough to recognize bullshit when I smell it -- and to understand when a newspaper is trying to play on people's prejudices in setting the public agenda.

Most Chronicle readers live in the suburbs -- as do most of its editors -- which explains the intolerance for urban realities and failure to understand San Francisco values. On top of that, there's an active center-right political movement in San Francisco that has long sought to make this city a less tolerant, compassionate and welcoming place. They are driving the Chron's coverage, whether Chuck knows it or not. But he's the one feeding the hatred of poor people, which is just the latest in a long line of racist and classist purges pushed by the Chron's parent company, Hearst Communications, going all the war back to when William Randolph Hearst's sensationalism created crackdowns on the Chinese, Mexicans, African-Americans, and other marginalized groups in San Francisco.
This is the same thing. Nevius started out over the summer by painting a picture of Golden Gate Park "littered" with used syringes, something anyone who uses the park regularly knows is ridiculous. But it scared people and fit into a vision for the city that the Chronicle has long pushed: creating a scrubbed city that welcomes tourists but not poor people. That's why the Nevius campaign has gotten such regular front page, above the fold play, and why it has produced story after story after story, all parroting the same simplistic line: homeless=bad.
But of course, they can't just say that, so they say it's all the "qualify of life violations" that are bad, or the syringes, or the panhandling, or the refusal to take advantage of services that the city so generously offers. In the same way, WRH used concerns about opium to push a crackdown on Chinese-Americans a century ago, and concerns about marijuana to incite hatred toward Mexican-Americans a couple decades later, and for his kin to paint dark portraits of life in the Fillmore back in the '50s and '60s in support of redevelopment, removal of low-income housing, and the black exodus from the city. And today, it's the homeless who threaten our safety and well-being and need to be wiped out, just like Rudolph Giuliani did in New York City, something that Newsom and Chron regularly cite as a model for us to follow. They don't acknowledge the other side of that crackdown: the aggressive police state is created, the civil liberties violations, the social and economic divisions, the gentrification, the Disneyfication of Times Square, or the fact that it simply pushed the homeless to other cities, including San Francisco. They complain about syringes without fully explaining why public health officials and the city's harm reduction policies accept needle distribution as a good tradeoff for slowing the spread of AIDS and other infectious diseases. All they seem to hear are the complaints of overentitled Americans who are sick and tired of seeing homeless people on their way to work. And all they acknowledge is that they're giving people what they want to read -- rather than being socially responsible for what they write.
Does Nevius understand the history of this kind of sensational journalism or the implications of what he's doing? It's hard to say, but here's my latest e-mail exchange with him so you can judge for yourself (I'll post any more replies in the comments section):

-----Original Message-----
From: Steve Jones [mailto:Steve@sfbg.com]
Sent: Tuesday, October 09, 2007 12:48 PM
To: Nevius, CW
Subject: Yes, Enough is Enough

I've finally had enough of your sensational "journalism" regarding the homeless, trying to whip everyone up into cracking down on the homeless and then today offering -- without a shred of substantiation, other than Rhorer's self-serving comment -- that people's attitudes toward the homeless are changing. Hell, Binder seemed to imply just the opposite -- that progressives don't see this issue the same way you do -- but you glossed over that and didn't let it influence your conclusion or the crusade that you seem to be on. First, you created the inaccurate image of a park "littered" with used syringes (funny, I spend a lot of time in the park, including mountain biking on hidden trails, and I've never seen one). Then you continued to beat the homeless crackdown drum, Ken Garcia style, until today you finally claim vindication for your perspective. Good ole William Randolph Hearst is probably looking up from hell with pride at his legacy.

Anyway, I intend to blog with this perspective soon, and I wanted to first give you the opportunity to address the points that I'm raising.

Steven T. Jones
City Editor
San Francisco Bay Guardian
(415) 487-2552

-----Original Message-----
From: Nevius, CW [mailto:CNevius@sfchronicle.com]
Sent: Tuesday, October 09, 2007 12:53 PM
To: Steve Jones
Subject: RE: Yes, Enough is Enough

Thanks for the note. As you probably know, we didn't start out doing a homeless series. We were covering the coyotes in Golden Gate Park and began to get loads of emails (over 100 on some days) saying the real problem was homeless campsites. I still feel camping in the park is out of line. That led to the streets, and if you saw the comments on today's column 400-plus and counting, I think you'd have to agree that we have an issue that cries out for discussion. I understand that not everyone agrees, but I've been at this for a while, over 20 years, and my experience is that newspapers can't create issues -- no matter how we try. We can only follow them. This is one of those in my humble opinion. CWN

-----Original Message-----
From: Steve Jones [mailto:Steve@sfbg.com]
Sent: Tuesday, October 09, 2007 1:10 PM
To: Nevius, CW
Subject: RE: Yes, Enough is Enough

Sure, lots of your readers hate the homeless, probably because so much of your circulation is in the suburbs. Unfortunately, it's always easy to rile people up against the poor. But my question is why you're writing about this so often, in such a sensational manner, refusing to give voice to groups like Sister Bernie's Religious Witness for Peace or the Coalition on Homelessness, and today presenting conclusions that are unsupported by the facts (unless you truly believe that blog commenters are somehow a representative sample of San Franciscans, which any statistician or reviewer of your circulation breakdowns would dispute).
Do you live in San Francisco? I know that most of your editors don't, which is why your paper is so consistently out of step with San Francisco values and has so rapidly lost San Francisco readers. And it's why they continue to flog this issue in such a high-profile fashion.
I really don't mean to come on so strong, but I just figured that you'd move on to other topics at some point. Now, it seems clear that your misleading crusade is going to continue, so I feel a need to more actively counter your distortions before you do real damage to this city and its underclass. What about you: aren't you bothered by the hatred that you're whipping up? Don't you know the history of this kind of journalism in San Francisco, when WRH started the Spanish-American War and the War on Drugs and created crackdowns on one marginalized group after another, from the Chinese to the Mexicans to the African-Americans in the Fillmore to the homeless today? Please, please, please, consider the implications of what you're writing.
Steven T. Jones
City Editor
San Francisco Bay Guardian
(415) 487-2552

Nevius wrote:
I have a meeting with Sister Bernie this week. And I had nothing to do with the Spanish American War. (That was a joke. Hope we can make those?) You are certainly within your rights to counter. That's journalism isn't it? Opposing views, getting a public airing? As long as there isn't name-calling, I'm all for it.

Jones wrote:
I notice that you're not answering my questions about your unsubstantiated claims and the history and implications of this kind of journalism campaign. And you seem to be absolving yourself of responsibility for the anti-homeless passions that you're inflaming. This isn't a civil debate that you're encouraging: real people are going to jail, rights are being violated, and the most reactionary political factions in town are being empowered by this over-the-top campaign. Don't you care?

Steven T. Jones
City Editor
San Francisco Bay Guardian
(415) 487-2552

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