By Rory Fleming
When Nikole Hannah-Jones of “1619 Project” fame saw the recent Associated Press story about a contingent of San Francisco residents growing more conservative in light of alleged “brazen crimes,” she was not amused. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and academic criticized AP reporters Olga Rodriguez and Janie Har for overly relying on year-to-year crime rate changes. She also opined that their article “seems to reflect the class anxieties of the reporter and offers proof of what I say: No reporting is objective even when it pretends to be so.”
The story is indeed problematic. It seeks to paint a picture of a San Francisco that has lost the war on crime because crime has won. To build on this thesis, the reporters cherry-picked angry tough-on-crime residents to interview who are presented as the everyman but are anything but. One is Patrick Wolff, a chess grandmaster who started a hedge fund with seed money from conservative billionaire Peter Thiel.
Another, Joya Pramanik, is a project manager at Google. While she moved from India in her teens and does not seem to be a millionaire or a billionaire, her LinkedIn shows that she graduated from UC Berkeley with a Ph.D in Chemical Engineering; she is hardly the kind of middle-class person San Francisco landlords frequently price out of the city.
Meanwhile, AP is the perhaps most syndicated newswire in the country, meaning that each time a story is published by its reporters, it is republished dozens if not hundreds of times. Content is often picked out for its national import, so it can be equally worth reading for residents of San Francisco or a small town in Indiana. It is also widely perceived as a centrist, or “unbiased,” publication, where journalists have presumably been trained to leave political bias out of their coverage of issues.
Citing San Francisco Police Department statistics, AP reporters Rodriguez and Har write that “larceny theft,” usually known as shoplifting, is up “nearly 17% to more than 28,000 from the same time last year.” District Attorney Chesa Boudin is implied to deserve the blame, as the reporters note both that critics say he is “too lenient on crime” and that supporters “say there’s no crime surge.”
No one truly knows how many property crimes happen in any given city in any given year. Police departments only report crime statistics based on cases that are reported to them. However, statisticians employed by the U.S. Department of Justice have long acknowledged that perhaps roughly a fourth of all petty thefts are ever reported to the police.
Social media critics of Boudin often counter the idea that crime is stable or shrinking under DA Boudin, because that calculation is made based on who comes forward, and supposedly fewer people are bothering to report petty crime due to Boudin being the DA. From the time he took office at the beginning of 2020, did DA Boudin actually gain more trust from his skeptics, leading to the illusion that there is more property crime (as told by SFPD numbers)?
The FBI’s Crime Data Explorer, which uses data from its Uniform Crime Report (UCR), also provides context by showing how this number has changed over a number of years. What it shows is that there were 14,568 more larceny thefts during LA District Attorney George Gascón’s final year as San Francisco DA than in 2020, DA Boudin’s first year in office. In 2011, former SFDA Gascón’s first year in office, there were 24,304 reported larceny thefts, which bumped up to 33,730 by 2014. Reported larceny thefts then stayed between 35,000 and 45,000 thefts per year, at least until DA Boudin’s tenure.
DA Gascón was preceded by Kamala Harris in this office. The larceny theft rate remained between 20,000 to 25,000 reported crimes during her tenure. Before Harris was Terence Hallinan, the archetypal progressive prosecutor, who served between 1996 and 2003. The first year Hallinan served as the SFDA, there were 31,062 reported larceny theft; by 1998, there were 25,349, a significant decrease. Harris campaigned to the right of Hallinan, who she casted as too soft on crime. In Harris’s first two years in office, there was about a 25 percent decrease in larceny theft, but most of that progress was undone in 2006, when larceny theft again went up 20 percent.
Sound familiar? It should — like Boudin, Kamala Harris saw a very similar, and in fact greater, increase in reported larceny theft in her third year as DA. But there was no recall attempt against her. City leaders did not bully her either, and local newspaper coverage did not seek to undermine her. When the San Francisco Examiner reported on increasing violent crime rates under Kamala Harris’s DA tenure, it noted that then-Mayor Gavin Newsom stood by her and increased funding to her office.
It is hard to envision the same skewed coverage of Chesa Boudin in a world where his parents were not some of the few radical leftists ever convicted of homicide in the US. While the AP reporters did not bring this up, others have. David Minier, the former DA of Santa Barbara and Madera counties is one, noting his parents’ prison terms before calling him “anti-law enforcement.” Tabloid journalism from the UK-based Daily Mail does the same thing.
Here’s the rub. Since 2014, there have been more radical right-wing terror attacks than ones resulting from radical left-wing or Islamist cells. That is inconvenient for conservatives, so it is not uncommon for people on the right to engage in whataboutism about Boudin’s parents whenever the growing far-right terror threat is brought up. The fact that Boudin’s mother, Kathy Boudin, was paroled in 2003 and became a professor at Columbia University is further fodder for them.
However, whether one agrees with the court rulings, right-wing terror defendants of a much more serious ilk have sometimes been treated more leniently in court than Boudin’s parents. Michael Fortier, one of the few co-conspirators who helped conduct the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, twice received 12 years in federal prison for his role in killling 168 people, as well as a new identity in the witness protection program. His wife, Lori, was granted immunity and served no time in prison at all.
Kathy Boudin also did the work to obtain a doctorate from the Columbia University Teachers College. Has anyone with a similar criminal record on the political right obtained a Ph.D, then attempted to get employment as a university professor? The answer seems to be no, leaving right-wingers satisfied with assuming it would not happen for one of their own, due to supposed anti-conservative bias.
Rory is a writer and licensed attorney.