The ugliness is in the trappings that surround a legitimate if stenographic news story.
The story repeats police allegations that, if true, are genuinely disturbing: that a man living in his car in Golden Gate Park was found to have delusions, a deadly arsenal, disturbing paramilitary gear, and a history of harassing people in ways that frightened them. If all of that turns out to be fact and not hype, then I'll be glad he was caught before he did something bad.
Where the Chronicle goes badly, disturbingly wrong is in imputing this man's alleged pathologies to every single homeless person in the city.
The problem starts with the header on the column: "When The Homeless May Not Be Harmless." People who live indoors commit serious crimes every day. Would it make sense to say, "When The Housed May Not Be Harmless?"
In case that isn't bad enough, Nevius opens his column with scapegoating comments that he implies may have been handed to him by a notorious police captain, Greg Corrales:
"If you live in San Francisco you've had one of these encounters: Someone starts ranting as you walk past. Most of us just ignore them. After all, they're harmless. But Capt. Greg Corrales at the Park Station reminds us that it isn't always that simple. His officers recently made a chilling discovery when they searched the car of a homeless man in Golden Gate Park."His message is a lie wrapped in a lie: first that all homeless people are deluded, bothersome ranters, and, second, that housed people should fear and hate all homeless people because one deluded ranter may have been actually dangerous.
Our town's major newspaper would not cite any other collective label, whether racial, national, religious, gender-based, or economic, as the single characteristic of an accused criminal that defines and explains his crime. It would not attempt to spread responsibility to the members of any other social group for an alleged offense by a single person.
If that's not bad enough, there is a worse ethics violation involving a photo used to illustrate the column in its free online version, which is the one I've also linked above. (If the facsimile I get via online subscription is accurate, this photo does not appear in the paper's print edition.)
Chronicle editors -- not Nevius, who seems to get an enfant terrible pass from journalistic standards, but his editors, who should know better -- have illustrated the story with this photo of a policeman pursuing a couple along a parkland path: a man carrying a blanket and a second figure, I think a woman, carrying a backpack. They are facing the camera. People who know them will likely recognize their faces. Until we read the photo caption, we're invited to think these individual, recognizable people are not merely a couple of sleepers being expelled from a public garden, but dangerous criminals who must be... Actually, must be what? Stopped? Searched? Banished? Rounded up? Eliminated? What exactly are Nevius and the Chronicle proposing here?
In the photo caption, some copy editor, perhaps recollecting a J-school ethics class, took care to begin with the words, "In this file photo." Those words, if you read carefully enough, distinguish the scapegoated pictured couple from the alleged dangerous survivalist. But it doesn't help a lot. This is the full caption in the free online edition:
"In this file photo, a police officer shooed away two transients from the Alvord Lake area near Stanyan and Haight Streets at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Officers recently made a chilling discovery when they searched the car of a homeless man in Golden Gate Park, finding guns and ammunition. Photo: Paul Chinn, SFC / SF"Really it does invite us to think very, very badly of the people pictured, and of any other visibly poor people we might see anywhere else in the city.
The Chronicle would not, for example, use randomly chosen pictures of immigrant day laborers to illustrate an article about a crime committed by an immigrant. Yet somehow it's OK to do the same to randomly chosen homeless people in a file photo?
I don't know what else to say except that this column, in my hometown paper on this ordinary American Saturday morning, contains the rhetoric of a demagogue against a scapegoated group, whose flavor I recognize from history lessons studied long ago in an America where Americans did not believe in talking this way.