John Stossel Teaches Master Class in How Not to Report on Homelessness

The tabloid journalist released a sensationalistic five-minute video on San Francisco that's full of mendacity, misinformation, and straight-up meanness.

A still from John Stossel’s irresponsible homeless-bashing exposé of San Francisco (YouTube/Stossel TV)

“Where is the poorest, dirtiest, most depressing slum in the world? In Haiti, India, Africa? Is that what this is? No, I’m in America — one of the richest parts of America. Highest rents in all of America. This is San Francisco today, encampments of street people everywhere.”

So begins the voiceover introduction to a 5-minute video called “Bad Laws Cause Homeless Crisis” that tabloid journalist John Stossel released this morning about San Francisco. Seemingly cobbled together from Daily Wire and Inside Edition segments, a few vox populi interviews, and a bit of B-roll, it is a master class in how not to treat homelessness and homeless people in a journalistically responsible fashion. It’s prurient, it’s gratuitously vicious, it pits unhoused people against one another without their knowledge, and it is wholly unconcerned with getting the perspective of any advocates, officeholders, or anyone with any expertise on the matter.

The bolding in Stossel’s quote is ours, obviously, because for this clip’s many sins, the refusal to connect the true causes of those “highest rents in all of America” with the people who live without a roof over their head the most grievous. No editors or producers apparently thought it was important for Stossel and his crew to make those connections. And how in the hell do you manage to discuss homelessness in San Francisco without bringing up tech, Silicon Valley, or any of that even once? Would they give the Detroit the same treatment without mentioning the auto industry? This “exposé” is willfully obtuse and intellectually bankrupt. 

Doubtless, many people will find Stossel’s work to be courageous, as if he were ramming through the crust of political correctness to get at the unspoken truth that homeless people are gross or subhuman. (Do not read the comments! Seriously. Do not.) Let’s be absolutely blunt about this much, though: Homelessness is a worthwhile topic to cover, and the breadth of the present emergency is San Francisco’s lasting shame.

Equally importantly, those self-interested NIMBYs who misuse CEQA and cite “neighborhood character” as reasons for nixing 100-percent affordable projects are a big part of the problem. It would actually be welcome for national media to goad the city into action — smart, compassionate action. But it is simply impossible to view this particular video as a jumping-off point to a rational discussion about the myriad causes of homelessness and its possible solutions. Stossel wants to inflame. That’s it.

When he quotes people who present as middle-class residents expressing disgust at someone shooting up on the sidewalk, it would have been wonderful to use that as a segue into the topic of safe-injection sites. That’s not what happens. When Inside Edition baits people into smashing some car windows and grab what’s inside — capturing it all on a hidden camera — it’s ethically dubious, at best. It’s also no substitute for diving into what exactly about our fabulously unaffordable paradise could possibly create these conditions for criminality. (Hint: It’s the rampant unaffordability.)

Sneakily, Stossel talks up San Francisco’s “generosity” as a rhetorical means of critique, both of the city’s alleged naivete and at the freeloading outsiders who flock here to exploit it. (This is simply incorrect. Most unhoused people in S.F. — as many as 70 percent — used to be “housed” people in San Francisco.) Running through archival clips of former mayors’ broken promises, he ticks off the resources available to our low-income neighbors, saying the city offers food stamps, shelter — although not nearly enough — and $70 a month. In fairness, $70 is not nothing. It’s enough to rent a studio apartment in the Tenderloin, as long as you have decent credit and an employment history, and don’t mind having $0 left over for food, clothing, and everything else. It would have been nice, though, in between hanging Willie Brown and Dianne Feinstein by their own platitudes, for Stossel to mention how Mayor London Breed may have torpedoed S.F.’s best chance to really do something — the Silent Majority’s favorite term — about homelessness. At least he didn’t bring up Kate Steinle.

At its heart, the thesis here is that homeless people “love the freedom of not having to follow the rules,” and woo-woo San Francisco encourages this kind of personal expression. In actuality, this shows you what a malleable term “freedom” really is in American political discourse. For many conservatives, freedom means the right to own assault weapons no matter how many of our citizens die in mass shootings. But in this context, freedom becomes undesirable and highly suspect. It has strong overtones of Timothy Leary acolytes turning on, tuning in, and dropping out, then crashing rent-free in the Haight for a Summer of Love that will never, ever end.

The refusal to speak on record with any stakeholders is telling. Where’s the mayor, her staff, pertinent department heads, any sitting supervisors, or anybody who works for a housing nonprofit? In theory, Stossel ought to want to hold these people to account. Instead, the only prominent figure quoted at length is John Dennis, who’s labeled by the neutral-to-positive term “Developer,” when, in fact, “Developer and 2018 Republican candidate for Supervisor in the most conservative district in San Francisco who still garnered less than 10 percent of the vote” might be more accurate. YIMBY Action’s Laura Foote pops up, too, but for such a brief sound bite that it’s barely worth mentioning.

The discussion of actual laws, bad or otherwise, is pretty thin. Because it’s right-wing economic orthodoxy to denigrate labor unions at all times, there’s a weird aside about how SFPD has made it harder for businesses to hire security. Yes, the taser-loving police union is among the thornier labor organizations in the city, but it’s a stretch to argue that a quieter POA would automatically mean more private security guards and therefore less property crime. (And does Stossel want more cops? Or just weaker unions generally? It’s hard to tell.) 

By “laws,” he’s not all that concerned about broken-windows policing or enforcing quality-of-life complaints. What Stossel really means is relaxing regulations on zoning and density. Standing on what is clearly 24th Street in Noe Valley, he speculates about how San Francisco might build its way out of this problem. That doesn’t work, although it’s Ayn Rand-lite dogma in spite of not working. According to his Twitter bio, his career taught him the importance of getting government out of the way — and sometimes, he does this quite admirably, such as when he’s criticizing the absurd public subsidies for sports stadiums. But the idea that the free market could be the primary culprit behind San Francisco’s current predicament is simply outside the realm of consideration. Never mind that 54,000 units are currently in the housing pipeline; what matters is John Dennis tut-tutting that he’ll “never do another project in San Francisco.” In other words: Let’s get rid of these unsightly have-nots and pesky protesters, and let the Howard Roarks invigorate their renderings with the breath of life. 

These political disagreements are almost beside the point, though. Much of “Bad Laws Cause Homeless Crisis” is just wantonly mean-spirited. When someone who clearly does not wish to be filmed says, “Hey bitch, stick that camera up your ass,” and then you go ahead and include that in your video, are you treating that person with dignity? When you show a man who maybe hasn’t showered in a couple days saying he believes in vampires, are you performing a journalistic service for your viewers or are you exploiting the mentally ill? Are you laying bare the truth or gleefully relishing the opportunity to portray unhoused people as rude miscreants who deserve their fate? John Stossel knows that millions of Americans believe in their gut that San Francisco is a dumping ground run by decadent liberals, so he gave them the red meat they crave. Almost all of them, it should be said, will watch his video from the comforts of a house.

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