Distracting People from the Material Conditions of Our Society
A New York Times Specialty
This weekend, the New York Times published a long, meandering story about how “bike theft” is plaguing Burlington, Vermont. The story ominously (and without evidence) suggests that what starts as bicycles perhaps stolen by “homeless” people and “meth users” leads inevitably to “violent crime” and “murder.” The story functions as a warning to liberal readers in other cities about what happens when “progressives” and their “hippie…ideals” take control and do terrible things like reduce reliance on police.
The New York Times article is a meaningless series of anecdotes that sheds no light on the serious problems of our society. I am astounded at what subjects and framing some corporate editors and producers choose for stories at a time of rising fascism, unprecedented ecological collapse, and historic precarity and inequality caused by redistribution of wealth to the richest people in society. But several aspects of this specific article are insidious, and some are downright scandalous. I try my best to draw out some lessons for journalists and readers who want to think critically.
As always with a news story, you should first ask yourself: Why was this written? Who brought this story to the New York Times? Who benefits from the reporer’s decisions about what to include and what to ignore? What biases are reflected in how the reporter understands inequality and power?
With these questions in mind, I discuss three major problems with the article.
Blaming “crime” (here, a rise in “bike theft”) on vague evils like homelessness and drug use without discussing the material conditions of our society like rising poverty, lack of affordable housing, and lack of healthcare.
Erroneously and comically suggesting that there is some tradeoff between our ideals like reducing inequality and racism and our safety.
Blatant, garden-variety copaganda that Fox News or the New York Post would be proud of.
I. Problems have root causes
This article follows a trend in corporate media: discussing problems in a superficial way that doesn’t help readers understand their root causes. But it’s worse than that—corporate news often actively misleads and distracts people to avoid vital truths. Recall my thread last year about the San Francisco Chronicle’s egregious coverage of homelessness that made it seem like people are homeless because they are mentally ill and use drugs rather than the greatest crisis of affordable housing in modern history caused by the massive increase wealth inequality and the corruption of local government politics by real estate developers. It’s a willful and intentional denial of the evidence about why the vast majority of people are forced to live on the streets. It’s worth clicking to read that thread because of the similarities in how pro-police neoliberal reporters seem pathologically unable to convey to their readers that problems in our society have root causes.
This New York Times article is worse though. Although the specter of homeless encampments full of drug using bike thieves haunts the entire article as the main villain, the only mention of affordable housing in the entire New York Times article is to note (favorably, somehow) that the corporate, pro-police mayor was an “affordable housing developer” (i.e. a real-estate developer who profited off of our society’s privatization for profit of housing for the poor) and to complain that someone vandalized the windshield of his Tesla. It’s almost like an Onion article.
It’s not just the laughable exclusion of affordable housing. The words “poverty,” “inequality,” and “wealth” do not appear at all in the article, nor are the concepts discussed using other words.
It’s almost as if the epidemic of homelessness in the U.S. appeared out of nowhere for no reason. Houseless people must be taken as a given—we must manage their thefts of bicycles with handcuffs, armed bureaucrats, and cages, but we certainly can’t ask why they do not have a place to live. Reporting like this carries water for the people in our society who own things, and it confuses multitudes of low-information readers who never develop a strong sense of the root causes of the solvable problems they keep reading about in the news every day. It also depoliticizes people by obfuscating the political and economic battles that actually determine the course of people’s lives.
And in this article, we have strong evidence that the New York Times reporter or editors intentionally chose to hide these questions from readers. Here is the popular, elected chief prosecutor in Burlington describing her interview with the New York Times reporter for this story:
II. The New York Times thinks we have to choose between our ideals and our safety
Time and again, prominent liberals portray the choice in a post-George Floyd world as a choice between our values and our safety. The idea is that we can have racial justice, economic justice, and civil liberties OR we can be “safe.” This is like climate science denial. The truth is that creating a world that lives up to these ideals makes us safer because overwhelming scientific evidence shows that the root causes of crime and harm in our society are related to poverty, inequality, lack of housing, early childhood education, pollution, lack of investment in community connection and mutual aid, access to healthcare, etc… We at Civil Rights Corps have collected a sample of that scientific evidence for you here.
But you wouldn’t know about that scientific evidence from the New York Times. Take a look at how the New York Times reporter chose to present the debate about transferring resources from Burlington police to things scientifically proven to make people safer: “A clash of ideals and reality.”
I won’t quote at length from the article here because the tropes are sickening. People who care about equality and who have devoted their lives to saving lives and creating more connected communities are portrayed somehow as ignoring safety. People who profit from surveillance and human caging are treated as caring about safety despite the evidence from across the U.S. and the world that those things reduce safety over the short, medium, and long term. People basing their opinions and progressive government officials basing their policy positions on the scientific evidence—evidence that is never mentioned to readers—are portrayed as naive “hippies” in the New York Times.
It all culminates in the reporter laundering the ideology of the New York Times reporter’s social circle through a carefully selected source: “But the notion of replacing the police with more social workers, she said, “is predicated on the idea that everyone just wants to get along.” The thesis here is fundamentally right-wing and anti-science: many people are evil and they will hurt other people, so we need authoritarian state violence to keep people safe. I have a very different view of what kinds of social investments minimize harm and violence—hint: most other rich countries are far less violent than the U.S. and spend a tiny fraction of what the U.S. spends on police and prisons.
But regardless of how you feel about where to draw these lines, one point should be obvious: there is no evidence of any kind of tradeoff between values and safety in Burlington. The city still has roughly the same size police force as it did before City Council voted to put a cap on it, and it wasn’t the cap that resulted in a slightly smaller force: it was the fact that very few people want to be police there. Now that the City has removed that cap, it still hasn’t hired and employed the cops again. And it’s not like the city has meaningfully solved the problems of inequality, housing, and healthcare. The real question, ignored by the NYT, would be whether relatively small reductions in the police force have any effect on the narrow range of harms that the police call “crime,” and whether municipal resources could be profitably invested in other things at a greater benefit per dollar. All of these real questions are ignored.
III. Generic Copaganda
Finally, I don’t know where to start with the article’s copaganda. Actually, I do. Take a look at the beautiful, sensitive portrait of the police chief, who is portrayed as a cool, thoughtful hero in the article.
We are told that this police chief is some kind of literal Hollywood ideal (he consulted for the show Brooklyn 99)—an Obama-loving, racial justice-caring, reformer who was just telling us like it is when he insisted on being overworked and understaffed:
Even worse, the reporter then let the police union spew unadulterated falsehoods, including the ludicrous argument that bike theft is some kind of gateway crime that will bring unto Burlington a wave of escalating violence:
And then the police union and police chief talking points go off the rails. The New York Times includes two anecdotes where crime victims were told that the police couldn’t help them because they were too busy:
There is no evidence to support this idea that cops in Burlington are too busy and “don’t have time” to help crime victims because they “have their hands full.” I have tracked similar false claims by cops in dozens of other cities whenever progressive reforms are discussed. And the New York Times makes no attempt to even tell its readers that these kinds of work stoppages and slow-downs are a pervasive political tactic cops use to attack progressive politicians and to increase their own budgets.
None of these are harmless, naive omissions. They reflect a politics and a bias that is pervasive in corporate news, even among well-meaning journalists. Given the seriousness of the structural problems with our society, it is imperative that journalists of good will begin to engage their important work differently. They aren’t independent contractors doing their work in a vacuum. They are employees and comrades in a workplace where power matters, and where the outcome of that power struggle shapes how our society thinks. None of this will stop until employees at places at the New York Times come together with humility, recognize the threat that reporting like this poses to democracy and to vulnerable people and to equality, prioritize political education of their co-workers, and organize to demand certain ethical standards and changes to how corporate news functions. It won’t be easy, but many of us are devoting our lives to helping.
There were numerous other problems with the article, which I don’t have space to address here, including that the author has no evidentiary basis to blame meth for anything; that it provides no evidence that the police department “reformed” itself; that there is no evidence that any problem described here is unique to Burlington’s policy choices; that it provides no evidence even that bike theft has increased substantially; that it appears to leave out some significant facts about the recent history of the local police that might tell a different story about why people don’t want to work there; and that the NYT twitter account absurdly claimed that the bike theft problem was a window into “a world of violence and despair that lurks below the city's surface.” Yikes. And after initial publication of this newsletter, other smart commentators have described additional ethical and journalistic problems with the article.
The article unwittingly provides some profound evidence against the police: the most effective local response so far to the bike theft problem has been a spontaneous and highly organized collective of residents who band together to help get people their bikes back. There’s a lot more to say about the promise of this kind of mutual aid, but it’s beyond the scope of my narrow critique of the article here.