This past week felt like a tipping point for Seattle, the moment when the collapsing economics of local journalism and the relentless flood of anti-homeless hysteria came to a head, and it’s a moment from which our city won’t soon recover. Three stories highlight this perfect storm, and demonstrate how ill-equipped we are to combat misinformation in the age of social media.
The Beheading Hoax:
The week started with Safe Seattle, an anti-homeless facebook group with almost 10,000 members, concocting a gruesome hoax about a homeless drug addict beheading people and hiding in homeless camps across the city. The story was a fabrication but was nonetheless shared more than 300 times on Facebook, also making its way to NextDoor, onto the airwaves over at KIRO, and being shared by the most well-funded city council candidate in District 2, Ari Hoffman. Safe Seattle immediately deleted and blocked dozens of commenters who questioned their story, as did Hoffman on his own campaign page, which created an echo chamber of paranoia and falsehoods. An SPD spokesperson shot down the story a day later, but the story is still posted and being shared a week later, without a retraction or context over on Safe Seattle’s page.
This story went largely unreported by the local media outlets. The Stranger, the most well-known outlet to cover the story, reduced it to a short mention in their end-of-the-week recap, several days after the story had been spread online and the damage had been done. Patch, an online news organization, was the only media outlet to devote anything more than a passing mention to the story. KUOW, Seattle Times, Crosscut, and South Seattle Emerald, all declined to cover the story at all.
In the days since, Safe Seattle has doubled down on the strategy, posting just last night that local politicians are conspiring to use race to refuse ticketing people for traffic infractions. They attribute the story to an unnamed source at Seattle Police Dept, and they proactively tell their readers they need not look or ask for evidence to support the outlandish claims. With no local media willing to debunk these claims, and with all dissenting voices blocked from the page, Safe Seattle will continue to spread lies and misinformation in an attempt to demonize the homeless and raise the profiles of candidates like Ari Hoffman.
A day later KUOW featured a lengthy interview with Christopher Rufo, a conservative, anti-homeless activist, and fellow at Discovery Institute, a Christian think-tank that believes “Judeo-Christian culture has established the rule of law, codified respect for human rights and conceived constitutional democracy.” Rufo is a charlatan and snake-oil salesman who has made a name for himself publishing pseudo-scientific claims that more resources are not needed to combat homelessness, we need only re-establish the family, church, and community bonds that have been eroded by the modern world. If this feels like the kind of propaganda that has been pushed by conservative groups like Focus On The Family, it’s because Rufo’s approach is no different. In fact, Rufo’s “study,” which he uses as the basis for all of his talking points, is an anti-intellectual mess of cherry-picked statistics and unsubstantiated claims that have been debunked from top to bottom.
Unfortunately when KUOW hosted Rufo last week, they failed to meaningfully challenge him on any of these points. In the most telling moment of the interview, Rufo claims “Over the last 10 years, homelessness is actually down 16.7 percent nationwide. Over the last five years here in Seattle, the number of people on the streets is up 131 percent.” and then he attempted to us those statistics to argue we are spending too much on combating homelessness. This is, of course, nonsense. The national homelessness rate has nothing to do with how much we spend locally to combat a problem that is the result of skyrocketing rents, and crises of addiction and mental health. But KUOW does not press Rufo on this point, nor do they contextualize any of the conclusions drawn from his fundamentally flawed analysis or his position within Discovery Institute.
To make matters worse, the following day KUOW posted a tweet about the interview that described Rufo as believing “Seattle doesn’t punish homeless people enough”. While not a direct quote, it is an absolutely accurate way to describe Rufo’s beliefs, which he clearly expressed during the interview, saying Seattle should institute a zero-tolerance policy on camping and should use law enforcement to provide “real incentives” to get people off the street. Rufo seized on KUOW’s tweet, successfully pressuring KUOW to delete it and apologize, and further pushing the narrative to his supporters that Seattle’s media outlets are somehow biased against the kinds of ideas to which they’ve happily given a platform.
KOMO’s Poverty Porn:
The week ended with KOMO broadcasting a heavily publicized special report, “Seattle Is Dying.” The program was a cynical and biased look at homelessness in our city, shamelessly compiling countless video clips of homeless people in crisis, and offering law enforcement as the only solution. It was a despicable, misleading, propaganda piece, even by the standards of KOMO’s parent company, Sinclair Media, widely known for requiring its affiliates to broadcast conservative propaganda across the country.
The piece featured very little actual reporting… At one point they showed video of a homeless person in crisis, speculated without evidence on what caused his crisis, and referred to him as a “wretched soul”. Sinclair/KOMO did not interview a single person working directly with people experiencing homelessness, and only interviewed two people who were actually experiencing homelessness themselves. There was no time devoted to discussion of root causes of homelessness, the affordability crisis, or the decades of public policy that has brought us to this point. It is now being shared across Seattle’s conservative social media as definitive proof that the must escalated its war on the homeless.
These three stories paint a bleak picture of our local media and its ability to inform and evolve our political debate. While budget cuts have left us with few reporters able to cover stories or debunk hoaxes, they also leave the door open for well-funded, national entities like Sinclair Broadcast Group to use their clout to poison our communities and endanger lives. And when KUOW, one of the few journalistic pillars left in town, feels it cannot even challenge anti-science rhetoric or accurately describe its guests for fear of losing its credibility, it leaves us with few options to combat misinformation. I don’t know where we go from here, but I do know that if we are unable to rebuild our local media free from conglomerates like Sinclair, if we are unwilling to ensure journalists can pay their rent doing the jobs we need them to do, we will be unable to protect the most vulnerable people in our communities.