By Lincoln Mitchell
Special to The Examiner
Perhaps the worst thing about Mayor London Breed’s maskless dancing at the Black Cat nightclub was her completely lame defense.
“Like, we don’t need the fun police to come in and try and micromanage and tell us what we should or shouldn’t be doing.” National media, particularly conservative media, had a lot of fun with the San Francisco mayor offering up a soundbite that could have come from pretty much any anti-masker.
Most of America now knows Breed for dancing maskless rather than for being chief executive of the big city that has done better than almost any other in the country in the fight against COVID. San Francisco has the lowest COVID death rate of any major city in the United States.
But the mayor is known for her COVID foibles rather than for her stewardship through a tough crisis. That is Breed’s problem, and her future in politics may be determined by her ability to solve it and figure out a better communications strategy. Of course, London Breed is not the only one with a media problem. San Francisco has one, too.
San Francisco has gotten itself in the unenviable position of being the whipping boy of both the right-wing media, namely Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, and of educated liberals who know all the answers: the Ezra Klein demographic. Both groups relish in righteously criticizing San Francisco.
The former portrays San Francisco as a cesspool of homelessness, drug addiction, stark contrasts of wealth and poverty and moral depravity, all due to far-left politicians. The liberal critique of San Francisco is that The City is being ruined by sky-high rents, a housing crisis that is unique to San Francisco and NIMBYs who claim to believe that Black Lives Matter so long as Black people don’t move into the new multi-unit building next door.
Of course, there are problems in San Francisco, many of which are also found in other big cities, even outside of California, but based on these two caricatures a casual news consumer could be forgiven for thinking that life in San Francisco is some kind of left-wing, elitist, dystopian hell.
There will always be those decrying how The City has changed for the worse. The rest of us recognize, however, that the stories of San Francisco’s demise are exaggerated, one-sided and, consciously or not, in the service of a political agenda. If the media covers discussions of homelessness and NIMBYism and SFUSD school renamings rather than the extraordinary success story of San Francisco’s COVID response, it is easier to continue to laugh, not just at San Francisco politicians, but at progressive ideas, such as scientific evidence (in the form of viral spread) and scientific innovation (in the form of vaccine effectiveness).
The question this raises is whether constant, negative media coverage of The City is harmful. The answer is yes.
The never-ending stream of stories about crime and disorder discourages investment and tourism. The latter is a hugely important part of San Francisco’s economy; many jobs will be lost if visitors believe what they hear about The City and stop coming here. Also, for decades San Francisco has attracted a diverse mix of immigrants and domestic migrants who have renewed The City’s progressive politics, cultural energy and offbeat vibe; but some may hesitate to come if they hear San Francisco has lost its progressive soul and is now a playground for the rich and plagued by homelessness.
Media coverage does not happen by accident. While Fox News and other right-wing outlets have an ideological agenda and are always going to see San Francisco as an easy target, the rest of the media could be persuaded to tell a more complex and accurate story about San Francisco.
Between The City’s extraordinary success fighting COVID and maintaining its economy, the influence of local politicians on national issues such as climate change, and the Giants’ great year, as well as our home’s eternal beauty — there is a lot more to San Francisco these days than crime and homelessness.
The City’s leadership needs to make an effort, and invest resources, in communicating that. London Breed has not succeeded so far, and dancing maskless is only part of the problem.
Lincoln Mitchell has written numerous books and articles about The City. Visit lincolnmitchell.com or follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.