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Wed, Jun

Homelessness and the Failure of Mainstream Media

LOS ANGELES

iAUDIT! - The Constitution’s framers included a free press in the First Amendment for a reason. Newspapers played a critical role in the American Revolution, informing the public of King George’s latest outrages and explaining the concept of democracy to common people.  A free press has always been integral to holding government accountable.  In 1971, the New York Times published the Pentagon Papers, revealing the US government’s years of lies and deception about the Vietnam War. The release of the Pentagon Papers moved opposition to the war from the fringe to mainstream society.  A little more than a year later, the Washington Post broke the story of the conspiracy behind the Watergate Hotel break-in and brought down a president. 

In the decades that followed, however, the corporatization of media enveloped independent news, and a voracious 24-hour news cycle fueled by cable TV has split mainstream media into two opposite but equally impotent factions.  The first is the “both sides now” style practiced by outlets like CNN, where all sides of an issue are given equal time, as if extreme right or left views have the same legitimacy as more conventional positions. The other, practiced by channels like OAN, filter even the most mundane news through their biased lens. Mainstream media at once reflects and reinforces the political divisiveness that has plagued America for the past 20 years. 

It has fallen on new forms of local media to step in where larger, more traditional outlets have failed. There is no better example of this trend than Los Angeles, where a once-important paper, the L.A. Times, has shrunk physically and narrowed its outlook. The paper’s news staff is a small fraction of what it was 20 years ago, and its owners ensure their New Progressive agenda colors every story. At best, the Times falls into the “both sides now” category, giving equal voice to facts and spin. Local media, mostly online, now publishes the stories the Times ignores. Just a few examples include: 

  • On May 15, the Westside Current published the first of a three-part series on how the City has spent more than $800 million acquiring motels and hotels for housing, only to leave 1,200 of 2,750 units vacant for months or years. The article, by Current publisher Jamie Paige and investigative reporter Christopher LeGras, described in detail the purchase price (always well over market value), location, and status of several developments in the City. This is the kind of top-notch investigative journalism once associated with the Times, which has reported nothing about the issue. 
  • When Mayor Bass recently advocated for more police presence on Metro trains and busses, the Times devoted almost as much space in its reporting to the voices of self-appointed advocates who seem more than willing to sacrifice the lives of working people to their ideas of transit and housing justice. Meanwhile, publications like the Current report on the reality of almost daily violent incidents on the Metro system. 
  • On May 9, Sue Pascoe of Circling the News published an investigative piece on the City’s Safe Parking Program. She visited two Safe Parking locations and found they were significantly underused. She also saw little evidence of the case management and other amenities called for in the City’s contracts with LAHSA and providers.  The City Administrative Officer’s budget memo on the Safe Parking indicates the City pays at least $5.6 million for the program, but pays a flat rate per space instead of paying for actual services provided. There is no incentive for providers to refer clients to housing. 
  • In December 2023, LAist published an article on HOPICS, an organization that received  $140 million in taxpayer money for rent subsidies, and now hundreds of its clients are facing evictions because it can't manage the program right. Yet HOPICS remains a favored provider for both the City and LAHSA, and major media often cites its leaders as “experts” on housing and homelessness. 
  • Of course, my fellow CityWatch LA columnists have done yeoman’s work calling the City to account. Dick Platkin, a former City planner, eloquently writes about failed housing policies that remove, rather than add, affordable housing stock. Jack Humphreville and Eric Preven regularly expose the budget-busting decisions made behind closed doors at City Hall.  

The L.A. Times has become little more than a cheerleader for Housing First and its failed policies.  Several of its articles quote advocates who cite “many” studies proving Housing First works. The paper’s reporters rarely check those studies for their applicability to Los Angeles. It takes investigation like that performed by Christopher LeGras in his All Aspect Report blog to uncover the reality of how badly Housing First and its supporters have failed the homeless in Los Angeles. 

There may be many reasons why the Times and other mainstream outlets fail where local media shines. It is no secret local newspapers have been devastated by declining subscriptions since the rise of the Internet. Staff reductions means there are fewer reporters who have time to dig into the facts behind some advocates’ claims. Ironically, the 24-hour news cycle on TV means there is less time to do in-depth reporting because news channels try to pack as many sensational headlines as possible into their newscasts to maintain high viewership. Specifically for the Times, the publisher, Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong is an unabashed champion of progressive causes, and its articles often conflate news and opinion. 

Local online news outlets are more nimble than their mainstream counterparts and can often take the time and devote the effort to delve into issues of local concern. Because they are local, they reflect the concerns and priorities of their communities rather than broader theoretical arguments one may read in larger publications.  Certainly, some local outlets have biases of their own, but they also must answer to their communities, where people have a broad range of opinions; they don’t have the luxury of a solid base of supporters to sustain them.  I’ve seen far more diverse viewpoints expressed here on CityWatch than I have in the Times. 

One need only look outside the news sphere to confirm the lack of objective reporting in mainstream media. While the Times or a news channel may tout the latest opening of a new housing facility serving a few hundred people, the State Auditor reports the state has spent $24 billion on homelessness over the past five years with nothing to show for it. The Times constantly repeats the story that homelessness is caused by an affordable housing shortage but fails to mention the high incidence of untreated mental illness and substance abuse among the unhoused reported in survey after survey. Media also fails to report how current polices destroy more affordable housing than they create while creating little new housing. 

Unfortunately, local elected leaders still take their cues from high-profile mainstream media. It is a symbiotic relationship. The Mayor’s Office or LAHSA can point to Times articles on the success of their policies, while the Times in turn dutifully parrots whatever they say as reality. When challenged by the facts reported in local media, leaders can brush them off as the isolated opinions of crackpots and NIMBYs. They can depend on a cadre of well-financed advocacy groups to drown out other voices and control the narrative. 

However, such self-validating denialism cannot last forever. Every time a new audit is published, every time a new count shows increases in homelessness, every incidence of defrauding taxpayers in the name of housing, and every unnecessary death on the streets weakens the false narrative peddled by leaders. Eventually, facts will overwhelm the failure of major media to publish the truth. 

(Tim Campbell is a resident of Westchester who spent a career in the public service and managed a municipal performance audit program.  He focuses on outcomes instead of process.)

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