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The Washington Post
Democracy Dies When the Editorial Board Speaks
The Washington Post Editorial Board just published false information. What it did with the false information is even more dangerous. Because of the stakes, I try to walk through what happened line by line below.
The Editorial in question is entitled: “The San Francisco district attorney saga set back criminal justice reform.” At first glance, this is another in a flood of major media articles that attempts to create an elite consensus that “criminal justice reform” has gone too far. In substance, the article is similar to the unethical New York Times election coverage of the race or the many “think pieces” by various elite writers that I analyzed in my last newsletter in that it misleads people about the underlying facts through both material omissions and false statements. But the Washington Post, whose motto is “Democracy Dies in the Darkness,” does some extra really bad stuff.
I want to be clear. For me, the reason I’m writing about this has little to do with the San Francisco DA race itself. It’s one DA race in one county whose neighboring counties with larger populations elected other progressive DAs in the same election. What matters more to me the Post’s propaganda tactics because they are so pernicious and so common:
The Washington Post weaponizes its misinformation in service of a monstrous pro-incarceration, anti-science agenda for which there is widespread consensus among major media outlets and editorial boards; and
The Editorial Board conceals unstated policy preferences—which are actually science-denying, discredited, and cruel—as some kind of vague, enlightened agenda that people of good will can feel good about. It is this function—masking extreme, devastating, and ineffective policies as enlightened and progressive—that I think is most dangerous as a form of propaganda.
Now to the article. Its main thesis is that the progressive DA didn’t serve the public “carefully” and that therefore he “served to discredit…more effective and humane approaches to public safety.”
This is a bold thesis that “humane” approaches are “discredited.” And you will see a pattern. Nearly every factual assertion in the Post editorial is either unsupported by citation or links to a citation that doesn’t support the assertion.
This thesis that the progressive DA didn’t pay “attention to people’s safety and quality of life” is a particularly striking claim by the Editorial Board for three initial reasons:
Both total property crime (down 11%) and total violent crime (down 19%) were significantly down under Boudin compared to 2019 before he took office;
Boudin’s major policies were actually popular with voters when divorced from relentless personal attacks on Boudin that were distributed with $7 million from Republican billionaires, police unions, and a wave of misinformation stories from influential media. Across the board, voters actually supported the things he did that set him apart from other prosecutors: those popular policies dramatically reduced incarceration, released wrongfully convicted people, saved tens of millions of dollars for families from the bail industry, saved a lot of children from adult prosecution, prosecuted police misconduct, opened a unit to pursue wage theft and consumer protection, etc.
The available scientific evidence actually backs each of Boudin’s key policies as reducing crime in both the short and long run.
So, how does the Post support its thesis that the person implementing more humane and evidence-based policies that worked well in practice ended up “discrediting” those policies?
Let’s go line by line. Here are the charges the Post makes in quotes, along with my commentary:
“Mr. Boudin failed to address the fentanyl trade in his city.” First, look what WaPo omits: Boudin proposed a multi-agency fentanyl task force that would have included prosecutors and public health officials and put it in his budget. The Mayor and the City refused to fund it. This is astonishing dishonesty. More importantly, what does the Post even mean? How exactly does the Washington Post Editorial Board think a DA in America would fix an opioid epidemic? If the answer was more prosecution and prison, then every prosecutor in the United States for the last 50 years would have failed at that task. The Post omits the scientific consensus: you can’t solve a drug use epidemic through criminal punishment.
“Burglaries climbed 45 percent during his tenure.” This is a lie. As the data reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle reported using actual data, burglaries are basically at “their pre-pandemic rates” (i.e. right before the DA took office). What else does the Post omit? Overall property and violent crime are both down since before the DA took office!Over the same period, rape, robbery, and assault *decreased* by 47% (-191), 27% (-851), and 6% (-160). So, violent crime (which the SFPD categorizes as homicide, rape, robbery, and assault) decreased by 19% (-1187). Property crime over that period is down by 11% (-6083).
So, how did the Editorial Board get this fake 45% figure? It cited another Washington Post opinion piece from the day after the election that made the same claim with no support. This self-referential loop of false information is the kind of Trumpian nonsense that, in a time of rising fascism, we desperately need rigorous media to stand up against.
“Businesses closed rather than face petty crime.” Somewhat hilariously, the Washington Post Editorial Board appears to have fallen for a right-wing conspiracy theory from election ads based on year-old Walgreens corporate marketing campaign. Although the Post’s citation for this claim was a May 2021 Yahoo! article, these claims were later thoroughly debunked. In fact, it later emerged that Walgreens had told shareholders that it planned to close the stores anyway for business reasons and not because of shoplifting in SF. In the most prominent example of these false viral election ads from right-wing dark money, a local businessowner claiming to have closed his store because of the DA was actually shown to have closed it in 2019, before Boudin took office.
“Mr. Boudin oversaw an exodus of prosecutors from his office, some of whom left because they say they were pressured to relax charges on major crimes.” This claim is laughable. First, offices always see staff turnover when a new elected official with a different political vision takes over, conservative or progressive. The Post’s comment doesn’t offer any explanation, but one of Boudin’s major campaign promises was to reduce unnecessary severity in sentencing and to end the use of racist gang enhancements. The single most robust finding in criminology is that lengthier sentences do not deter crime. The citation to the Post’s claim is an article by conservative Nellie Bowles that was riddled with false claims and embarassing errors, but it appears to be referencing Bowles’ reference to a disgraced prosecutor who left the office after Boudin refused to let her violate her ethical obligations. I’ve written about that specific prosecutor here.
Conservative “writer Nellie Bowles in a Wednesday article in the Atlantic [said] ‘the D.A. said from the beginning that he would not prioritize the prosecution of lower-level offenses.’” I wish I were making this up. The Editorial Board’s final substantive reason is that a random writer with no expertise said something. First, most prosecutors in the U.S. “prioritize” the most serious cases. That’s what everyone wants them to do! Second, Boudin’s policy of not prioritizing some low-level offenses has been shown to reduce crime, as the Washington Post itself has reported. I wrote my entire last newsletter inspired by this horrible Atlantic article that the Editorial Board cites multiple times. It’s one of the worst pieces of “journalism” I can remember.
What the Editorial Board is doing is like climate science denial. It is vaguely suggesting that prison and prosecution is the way to solve drug use and homelessness—right-wing arguments that have been discredited for decades. But here’s why it is ultimately dangerous: the Post portrays itself as enlightened.
It begins by listing all of the progressive things it supports in theory. This is a common move by elites who want readers to support something terrible: they tell us up front that they share our values of caring about inequality and human flourishing. (Nevermind that the Editorial Board is aware that the right-wingers behind the recall will pursue policies that destroy each of these values. Many more people will be jailed for being mentally ill, drug addiction, unhoused for zero empirical safety gain.):
Then, the Editorial Board assures us AGAIN that it is enlightened and progressive:
This is a very important tactic in weak arguments in the media: Before saying something cruel and right-wing and indefensible, a lot of pundits preface it with “look, see, what I’m saying can’t be bad because I care about making things better too.” It’s similar to how BP or Exxon preface investor calls or marketing ads with a statement about how much they care about the environment before proceeding to pursue policies that destroy it. Or to Fox News developing a slogan that it cares about being “fair and balanced.” In a similar context, I’ve written about how punishment bureaucrats use the language of “reform” to pursue devastating policies that wouldn’t be supported otherwise.
We are at a time of rising fascism and rampant misinformation. If there is no accountability for false information by the leading journalistic entities, and instead if they use that misinformation to make state repression look “progressive,” we are all in big trouble. Let’s hold them accountable.