San Francisco’s iconic progressive image in the American mind has made the city a prime target for critical conservative commentary. In conservative media, California and the Bay often function as a symbol of liberal or Democratic policies. For example, a Fox News investigation (2019) of the unhoused in the city illustrates the San Francisco-as-dystopia symbolism in right-leaning mediaspheres. The investigation’s partisan lens is explicit: “to chronicle the toll progressive policies have had on the homeless crisis.”
The Fox journalist details the problem of those forced into the streets by inflated housing costs and inadequate social programs. How the story is framed makes all the difference. The investigation underlines the problem with anecdotes from the perspective of frustrated business owners and visitors appalled or frightened by street encounters with the poor, drug-addled and mentally ill. To Fox’s credit, the wealth gap exacerbating the issue becomes clear in interviews with Bay Area residents. All fair points about housing policy failures aside, the Fox piece frames the issue in two significant ways:
- The unhoused is a problem for visitors and the middle class who wish to use the city without the inconvenience of poverty-battered bodies in the street;
- A failure of “Democrats” and the progressive ideology SF has come to symbolize in the American imagination.
The report only lightly touches on inflated housing costs resulting from capitalist housing market dynamics and the wealth gap in the state. Instead, the story focuses the reader’s attention on arguments that a soft-on-crime agenda was central in creating the crisis. The report appears to be a piece on public policy. However, it becomes clear that the emphasis is on “failures of liberal programs” rather than an earnest journalistic exploration of proposed solutions to housing crises.
In public discourse, filtered through the business model of cable news, San Francisco is a means to a partisan end. In stories like this, the city is used as a symbol of progressive policy failures. The city is a character in a narrative that confirms the correctness of conservative politics. Comments on stories like these seem to confirm how the framing pits city progressives vs. non-city conservatives:
The historical context for the emergence of these partisan news frames is important. The origins of conservative media city-bashing are rooted in transformation from a more unified, low-choice world of media of the 20th century to our current high-choice and politically fragmented environment.
Until around the 1980s, American media was a low-choice world. The media system was “low-choice” when TV news, for example, was produced by three or four mainstream networks (ABC, CBS, NBC) with roughly similar ideological perspectives. By the 1990s, Americans found themselves in a “high-choice” media environment.
The low-choice media environment had its flaws but it likewise had the benefit of putting Americans on the same page about the major problems we faced as a nation. Scholars and journalists of the 1970s could identify something like a mainstream public debate. The high-choice media world (after cable then satellite then digital and social media) made more perspectives available, but it also fragmented the public. Over time, the public’s use of media took shape around preferred news sites, guided by confirmation biases, selective attention and information “bubbles.” The diversity of available perspectives was supposed to be more democratic and empower citizens with access to information, but the high-choice media environment paradoxically allowed us to insulate ourselves from opposing views and the people who expressed them.
These gradual changes to the media system enabled new business models to specialize in partisan content. The introduction of Fox News in 1994 is a popular illustration of this late 20th century business model, but digital platforms also followed suit with the right-leaning Drudge Report (1995) and the liberal Daily Kos (2002). Today, Breitbart news, One American News and a number of other media start-ups are targeting these partisan audiences and competing for audience market share, often by expressing ever more partisan frames on American politics. Facebook’s leaked internal research has confirmed this trend. The leak shows how digital media companies profit when “core parts of its platform appear hardwired for spreading misinformation and divisive content.” For these companies, the civic decay stemming from this ideological war is a gold mine.
The way technology and business models have exacerbated partisanship in American politics challenges classic tenets of journalism. It has also disrupts the traditional function of news. Where 20th century journalists could think of news as a sort of schoolhouse, offering information to foster educated voting and self-governance, the 21st century has cultivated new functions of news in public life. The schoolhouse metaphor has given way to another functional metaphor: the church. Americans increasingly use news as a way to endorse a common ideological faith. Conservatives look to Tucker Carlson to confirm the evils of Nancy Pelosi and commiserate about the dangers of “creeping socialism.” MSNBC viewers tune in to see if Trump will be indicted for his role in the Capitol riots following Biden’s election. In many ways, our choice of news is a choice of a dramatically illustrated world view. The faithful, after all, don’t go to church to learn something new about what happened to Jesus. They go to participate in a community of shared values and fellowship.
Partisan news and the reorganization of the public into news communities of faith helps explain the fragmentation of the public and the use of San Francisco as a symbol for conservative news audiences. Liberals can wonder why the farmers of Kansas vote against their own economic interests. In each case, the cultural chasm widens as news media marshal cities and places as symbols of difference and antagonism rather than one people working as a larger collective.