It should come as no surprise that CNN's gratuitous San Francisco hit piece several weeks ago — a Sunday evening, hour-long special about how the city has gone to hell, in the vein of Fox News — didn't embrace any nuanced angles about the lives of homeless people.
Now that CNN's CEO of the last year, Chris Licht, is out the door, it is prescient to question what his goals were with the network, whose ratings were taking during his tenure. And taking on the sensational, national-favorite pastime of dumping on San Francisco when its chips are down for some Sunday evening ratings fits into the modus operandi of a CEO who also decided — unwisely — to give Donald Trump an open forum to spew his bullshit in a town hall special the week before.
The rightward turn of CNN in recent months has been well documented, and that "What Happened to San Francisco?" mini-documentary seemed to be part of that trend. Respected journalist Sara Sidner was likely overruled and/or wasn't even involved in the editing of the special, which hewed to TV news's worst tendencies to decontextualize and over-simplify complex issues.
Ironically, this was an episode of Anderson Cooper's "The Whole Story" series. It would hardly be possible to tell the whole story of SF's current web of challenges in an hour of TV cut through by 20 minutes of commercials.
Homelessness is one such challenge, as Mayor London Breed likes to call it. And the Chronicle's Soleil Ho reached out this week to one of the unhoused subjects interviewed by Sidner, disabled former firefighter Couper Orona — whom Sidner likely found via this mini-documentary about her and how she tends to fellow unhoused people's medical needs. Orona's story is a complicated one, and one that CNN apparently didn't have time for.
One brief exchange is included in CNN's special, in which Sidner presses Orona on why she won't accept housing in one of the city's many — and multiply troubled — SROs. Sidner says, "Take the housing, it’s safer!" and Orona replies, "No, it's not."
The further explanation, which Orona says she gave to Sidner on camera, never made it to air. But, as she tells Ho, "People die every second in [SROs] and they just scoop the body aside and let the next person in.” And she relayed a story about her sister living in one SRO where a man was repeatedly breaking into her unit, and her complaints went unaddressed. Thus, Orona prefers controlling her environment in an encampment, even if that arguably isn't a lot safer.
Orona further says that a friend of hers named Crystal in the same encampment, who was interviewed on camera for "almost an hour," ended up just as a 13-second bit standing in as a symbol for everyone who loses their housing because they miss their curfews. As Orona explains to Ho, Crystal was supposed to be signing in at certain times to keep her housing and her belongings, but she ended up with an infection that landed her in the hospital for two weeks. And the SRO kicked her out and gave her housing to someone else as a result.
While we, and the Chronicle, can't confirm the details of that case, or the one involving Orona's sister, it sounds pretty typical of an SRO system that was the subject of a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation by the Chronicle, detailing egregious and unsafe conditions. A subsequent piece detailed how easily — and how often — formerly homeless people who achieved the goal of being housed then lose that housing due to sometimes arbitrary rules.
And did we really need another piece detailing SF's social ills in as perfunctory and superficial a fashion as this CNN piece did, implying the sympathy for the homeless is misplaced, without offering any new insight, for the benefit of an audience far away that wants to tsk-tsk liberalism writ large?
"Yes, San Francisco has real issues, like any city that’s ever existed," Ho writes. "But we’d get further in solving them if we stop cutting the inconvenient facts out of frame."
Top image: Still from "Couper Was Here," a documentary on Vimeo from Studio Intersect