A recent series in the San Francisco Chronicle accusing homeless people of virtually destroying the sanctity of Golden Gate Park has caused quite a brouhaha in San Francisco, the past month and a half. Perhaps the most amazing aspect of the recent hysteria was that nothing actually happened. Or, more precisely, nothing happened until after the news had already been invented. No child stepped on one of the supposedly ubiquitous syringes, no cooking fire got out of hand, no sleeping body tripped a morning jogger.
A parallel bizarre move was the paper’s manner of covering the “story”: Three times in the span of just over a week (and multiple times since), it ran on page 1 not well-researched journalism, but columns with big color photos. A periodical that goes by the name of a newspaper is usually comprised largely of news—that is, information—information that must meet certain standards of proof or probability to separate it from mere speculation or wholecloth fiction.
This isn’t to say that there’s no place for opinion or the personal in journalism. In what a sister publication calls “I Journalism,” personal experience informs reporting. Even in mainstream media, more than a modicum of opinion goes into determining what, exactly, is newsworthy, and that editorial perspective is reflected, appropriately, on the editorials page. And New Journalistic writers have certainly used personal anecdote to good effect. But in all these cases, while opinion and personality impact reporting, the heart of the news is fact: Whether it be experientially personal fact, or probabilistic accounts reconstructed from wide-ranging interviews and documentary research.
The column is something else altogether. The heart of the column is the columnist, which means that the entire genre is based on personality. It isn’t news so much as attitude and worldview that matters. For this reason, newspapers usually tuck columns in the interior, and highlight their personal nature by featuring a picture of the columnists face. Because they aren’t real news, they aren’t held to the same journalistic standards of accountability as other news articles.
As such, the Chronicle is free to print columns that say just about anything: In the past couple months columns have advocated the pardoning of border guards found guilty in the shooting of a Mexican immigrant, and accused Bay Area pacifists of not wanting an Iraq in which, “citizens [were] secure…” As long as the paper maintains a distinction between reporting and frothy-mouthed, grossly uninformed tommyrot, it can maintain its credibility. But why, then, would the Chronicle print capricious, ignorant columns not once but now five times in such a manner that they could be confused for actual news reporting? Mightn’t this threaten the paper’s credibility as a purveyor of news?
The answer is that the Chronicle doesn’t care—and never has cared—about the news. Like most mainstream media, the Chronicle is above all a business. And it’s a desperate, failing business. Now, there’s nothing morally objectionable about being a failing business, per se, but those who are desperate tend to do desperate things. The Chronicle has made it tremendously clear in its last couple columns that it wants reader attention to the comments other readers post to articles on SFGate—the Chronicle’s Website. The on-line business model is, in Editor Phil Bronstein’s words, “predicated on traffic…” The Chronicle may have discovered a new rule of survival for obsolescing corporate media: Nothing generates Web traffic like a well-designed bout of mass hysteria.
But let’s face it: We can’t know the paper’s true motivations, and the Chronicle hasn’t been a reliable news source for a very long time. Skeazey though the paper’s on-line business model may be, the mainstream press has lost so much credibility over the past couple decades that its newslessness is hardly news. But that doesn’t mean this doesn’t matter: Our mayor is extremely sensitive to any criticism from the press, and the reckless mammering of the Chronicle has resulted in police displacements of Park residents. While mayoral press releases have portrayed these “sweeps” as paternally benevolent, the reality is that more homeless people have received citations for nothing more than not being able to afford rent, than have been placed in any kind of shelter or housing.
When our local mainstream media outlets limp toward self-destruction, far be it from us to stand in their way. But when they lash out at poor people on the way down, then we, as a society, have a problem.