Yesterday, the New York Times wrote an article about the plan by New York City Mayor Eric Adams to “remove people with severe, untreated mental illness from the city’s streets and subways.” The article is a good example of how leading corporate news organizations cover homelessness and state violence.
The Mayor’s new plan calls for the mobilization of thousands of government employees to involuntarily hospitalize “homeless people” who “they deem” to be “mentally ill.” These “homeless people” who a cop on the street determines to be unable “to care for themselves” will then receive unwanted and forcible medication in a locked setting for an indeterminate time. Police will do all of this even if the person “posed no threat to others.”
This post is not about the Adams plan itself, the terms of which should alarm any person who cares about either state power, evidence-based public policy, or the well being of other human beings. Other experts have already pointed out how the plan is divorced from basically everything we know about the underlying causes of homelessness and how to effectively help people with mental illness:
Other writers have also pointed out that the plan is the latest in a series of brutal, fascist efforts designed to use state violence to control poverty without ameliorating the conditions that cause it, such as the San Francisco Mayor’s emergency declaration suspending various democratic laws to deal with the “crisis” of homelessness and drug use.
Instead, this post is about how the New York Times chose to cover the Mayor’s plan because it provides some subtle but important examples of how corporate news media is complicit in both state violence and irresponsible public policy.
Distracting people from what matters
The lengthy New York Times article on homelessness and mental illness is astonishing for what is missing: the article does not contain a single mention of the root causes of homelessness. It does not mention affordable housing, poverty, inequality, real estate developers, or government policies that created or that could fix homelessness. It contains not a single mention of extraordinarily effective interventions like cash transfer programs targeting people at risk of homelessness. Nor does the article contain a single mention of universal access to preventative health care, of the massive divestment in our society from mental health care, or of the root causes of mental illness. A person reading this article would leave the article entirely uninformed about either the causes of the problems or the range of effective, simple interventions that politicians who actually care about solving them could employ.
For the last year, I have tracked numerous examples of this common practice of prominent news articles writing about problems while ignoring the structural causes of those problems if they are related to inequality. The cumulative effect is that people reading the news are not only uninformed, but they become actively less informed because they believe the causes of the problems are the unrelated superficial things that the news stories focus on or that the problems have no discernible cause whatsoever rooted in features of how our society is organized. Moreover, they leave thinking that people in power are trying their best to explore elusive solutions to problems as intractable as nuclear fission or living on Mars.
I was particularly interested in tracking this media phenomenon when Democratic officials and liberal corporate journalists were fearmongering about “disorder” and “homelessness” in San Francisco last year:
Time after time this year, discussions of homelessness in the corporate media are divorced from what every expert knows about what causes homelessness and how to solve it. Many of these articles then offer equally egregious introductions to the issues of drug addiction and mental illness. Indeed, in my last newsletter, I wrote about a different NYT article that did something very similar while decrying the encampments of homeless “meth users” who may be stealing bicycles in Vermont:
One of the most alarming of the many common types of contemporary U.S. liberal news story is the article about “homelessness” that doesn’t talk about the material economic conditions that cause it. It’s a new kind of liberal “think piece” almost surgically designed to prevent people from thinking about structural inequality. I very much encourage you to read my previous article on these “think pieces.”
But if you don’t have time, here is the important point from my book Usual Cruelty, which explains the Eric Adams approach to criminalizing homelessness and mental illness using tactics that every reasonable person knows will only make the problem worse:
We cannot mince words: reporting like this that distracts from investments needed for real safety to bolster cops and cages will empower fascist violence against poorest, most vulnerable people in our society.
The New York Times oozes carceral ideology
I want to highlight a few additional things about this article that may seem subtle but that are important. First, take a look at how the reporters describe Adams’ unhinged, anti-science, and fascist violence against homeless people and repeated instances of straight-up lying to the public about bail reform being connected to crime:
To the New York Times, these are not flagrantly illegal acts of state violence (that NYPD gets sued and loses over repeatedly) or Trumpian lies to be corrected by objective journalists. They are a genuine “focus on public safety.” But allowing politicians to portray far-right, authoritarian, and repeatedly disproved tactics of control as genuinely good faith efforts to keep the public safe, corporate media becomes complicit in the violence, in the deterioration of critical public thinking skills, and in the inability of our society to solve real problems.
In the same way, the New York Times again uses the dangerous copaganda trope of carceral policies being “tough on crime.” I’ve written an entire newsletter post on how terrible this media practice is. In yesterday’s article, the NYT again portrayed Adams as a “tough on crime” person who was addressing “growing disorder” with “aggressive measures.” In contrast, here’s how the NYT juxtaposed opponents of disappearing homeless people: “Left-leaning advocates and officials who dominate New York politics say that deploying the police as auxiliary social workers may do more harm than good.”
This faux debate concocted by the NYT is not a serious one grounded in reality. Not only is the position of the “left-leaning” opponents simplified and caricatured to the point of distortion, but their view is portrayed as shaky and ambivalent (more cops “may” do more harm, who could know!) in contrast to Adams’ confident assertions that he is aggressively conquering crime and disorder. But the scientific evidence is exactly the opposite. We know what works, and it is the root cause investments that these opponents are calling for. We know what doesn’t work, and it is what Adams is ruthlessly implementing.
Much worse, then, the New York Times continues to allow politicians like Adams to portray homelessness and mental illness as “a problem that has seemed intractable” despite the best efforts of well-meaning and compassionate politicians.There are effective and widely known solutions to these problems. But if you attempt to solve any problem by only trying things that have been repeatedly disproven and that have no chance to work, any problem will “seem intractable.”
And so we arrive at one of the most darkly ironic aspects of the symbiotic relationship between authoritarian politicians and the complicit news media that prepares the public to accept state repression. Time and again, the same policies of control, violence, and extraction for profit are implemented, and time and again the corporate news media fails to properly inform readers about the context and evidence that would allow the public to understand the situation. Here is a Fox News article proudly quoting Eric Adams:
One of the most frustrating aspects of contemporary corporate journalism is the way in which it sanitizes state violence. The NYT article nowhere contains the word “arrest.” Instead, it allows Adams and other politicians to frame custodial arrests with metal chains by armed agents (which would meet the legal definition of armed kidnapping if a private person carried it out) as an act of compassion despite their choice not to invest in the far more effective work of building systems of genuine prevention, trust, and care.
This is dangerous. Police Officers are going to be put in the position to determine “who” of the homeless population is considered “mentally ill and unable to care for themselves”? Using what criteria? And I ask this as a Nurse Practitioner.
This sounds more like a generalized “roundup” under the guise of “doing a good thing”.
All it’s going to do is clog up the Emergency Departments. There’s no way ANY ONE of these people will meet admission criteria because being homeless is not an illness and unless you’re actively threatening to harm yourself or others you don’t pose a risk to anyone.
And what does “care for yourself” even mean? Some people think if you don’t shower everyday you’re not caring for yourself other people have a different perspective of what “caring for oneself” means.
This is all a sham to make it look like someone is doing something about what society perceives as a problem they would rather not have to deal with.
And shame on the NYTimes for NOT utilizing Investigative Journalism to examine such a juicy societal issue. This issue is something that The Old Grey Lady could have really sunk her teeth into but politically I fear it may have been a might too hot of a topic for her. Thus, better to regurgitate the same old blah,blah, blah which they seem to do very well these days
This NYT article could have been written 10 years ago. As a former clinical coordinator of a big city emergency room psych department I see no analysis or solutions offered by the mayor to a heartbreaking crisis which increases every year. The homeless and particularly the mentally Ill homeless are more and more visible and politicians simply give lip service - I can’t really believe that they don’t understand the basic root causes of this worsening systemic crisis.
This cruel system’s answer is most often prison system or ER system with an exit to homelessness again.
As always Alec your work gives one hope. Thank you