By Janine Jackson / FAIR
Janine Jackson interviewed Alec Karakatsanis about the recall of Chesa Boudin for the June 17, 2022, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: Politico, in a not-stupid piece on the ultimately successful recall campaign against San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, referred offhandedly to Republicans across the country running on public safety, “betting voters will punish Democrats for embracing a more lenient approach to sentencing and incarceration.”
In reality, the work of decarceration, as understood by people who’ve been studying and advocating and doing it for decades, involves deep engagement with communities and their human needs. It’s nothing less than an intentional, accountable reprioritization of social resources. It is emphatically not doing less, which is what is implied by the term “leniency.”
That kind of apparently lazy but very meaningful misrepresentation in a phrase, writ larger, is the media coverage of Chesa Boudin’s recall, coverage that our guest has been monitoring and breaking down on Twitter and elsewhere.
Alec Karakatsanis is founder and executive director of Civil Rights Corps, a civil rights lawyer and public defender. He’s author of the book Usual Cruelty: The Complicity of Lawyers in the Criminal Injustice System. He joins us now by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Alec Karakatsanis.
Alec Karakatsanis: It’s so great to be here; thank you so much.
JJ: Everyone knows somebody who argues by only mentioning information that supports their point of view, and obscuring rather than engaging any that doesn’t, no matter how germane. It’s an obnoxious, regressive way to have a conversation. But it’s something worse when you pretend it’s journalism. So I’d like to have you talk us through the problems with this June 8 New York Times article, but maybe just start by saying why you chose to take it up. We see crap crime coverage every day. Why did this stand out to you?
AK: I think elections are a particular moment of consciousness, where people are paying attention more than they ordinarily would to political punditry, to commentary, to articles about policy. And I think it was a particularly important moment at 5 am, the morning after the election, when the New York Times put this article online.
And based on the placement the Times gave it in various of its platforms, it is estimated by the analytics tracking company Meltwater to have had the potential reach of 170 million people. So for me, it was a very prominent and very important article, which the New York Times pitched as its main takeaway from last Tuesday’s elections.
And so, for that reason, I thought it was profoundly troubling that the Times created such a dishonest and dangerous narrative, that what the voters were somehow telling us is that we need to double back down on mass incarceration policies that, by every conceivable available metric, have been an utter failure as a matter of keeping us safe, and a disaster as a matter of human rights and basic human dignity.
JJ: So how did this story do that? What were the sort of mechanisms in the story itself that pushed that conclusion?
AK: If we had 10 hours, we couldn’t cover them all, but I’ll do my best!
JJ: I know!
AK: Virtually every word and clause in the article was an effort designed to concoct, out of nowhere, a false narrative that the election was a victory for tough-on-crime right-wing policies.
So the first problem with the article is, who is it relying on? Who pitched it? How did it get there and why?
I think the second and most glaring problem, that I lead with in my analysis of the article, is that it bases its entire thesis, that voters are sending a “tough on crime” message, on just two races: the mayor’s race in Los Angeles, and the DA recall in San Francisco. In order to do that, the article had to ignore the vast majority of elections in California and across the country.
And if you look at the other elections in California on these issues, progressive candidates trounced their opponent. The following races were completely and utterly ignored by the New York Times: the California attorney general’s race, where a progressive reformer absolutely trounced the tough-on-crime opponent, who everyone had been talking about and boosting prior to the election. She ended up coming in, like, fourth place. Tiny percentage of the vote, trounced by the progressive California reforming attorney general. Same thing with Contra Costa, Alameda.
If you look at the local races in Los Angeles, well, the Times gives almost the entire article to boosting Rick Caruso, the former Republican, billionaire real estate developer. As more results have come in in the days since the election, he actually is now losing, and Karen Bass is beating him.
And if you look at the other local races, a city-wide race for controller was a referendum on police budgets, and the progressive candidate, Kenneth Mejia, trounced the longtime, multiple-incumbent city councilperson. And Mejia ran a transparent, clear, effective campaign about very popular things: investing in our safety through schools, housing, healthcare, treatment—rather than more and more cash for surveillance technology and overtime. And these are very popular positions, it turns out. And the Times just ignored all of that, as well as a number of other LA city council races.
I’ll just pause there, because I want people to understand that the entire framing of the article was based on two examples, one of which has now turned out to be utterly false, in terms of the local Los Angeles mayor’s race, where the very basis of their narrative, that this former Republican billionaire had won, is now incorrect, as more votes have been counted. But two, it all relied on ignoring these other races.
JJ: Right, and that selective storytelling amounts to an important misrepresentation, and then misdirection. And just to tease out one thing that you’ve said, the focus on elections often leads media to talk about people and individuals, and to ignore the voters and the public. And what you have indicated repeatedly is that the policies, these policies about engaging the criminal justice system, about reprioritization—these are popular policies. And if the media were genuinely interested in being the people’s voice, then even if a particular candidate lost, they would still be engaged with whether the particular policies and ideas were well-received and popular with the people.
AK: Absolutely. This is another key point. So if you look at the New York Times article, it claims that voters were motivated by what it called “unchecked property crime” in San Francisco. If you look at the actual data from San Francisco police themselves, property crime is significantly down under the tenure of the current DA. So is violent crime, way down in San Francisco. By every conceivable metric on which every local prosecutor and police budget and set of policies are measured, the tenure of this progressive DA was an enormous success.
What the Times ignores is there was a huge $7 million effort led by Republican billionaires and the police union to tarnish the DA himself. And much of that was based on complete fabrications, total disinformation, lies—but a very, very active local media effort.
Another tech venture capitalist rich person hired an entire media outlet and its full-time reporter to just boost these right-wing lies in San Francisco itself, the kind of resources that are hardly ever thrown at local journalism anymore. It was really incredible to watch.
All that was ignored by the Times, and, instead, they tried to make it look like the voters were rejecting Boudin’s policies. But if you actually look at the available polling that we have for voters in San Francisco, every single one of Boudin’s major policy priorities were enormously popular with the voters. This is a really interesting story, and the Times just completely ignored it, because this does not fit its narrative that voters don’t want progressive policy.
JJ: Here’s a bit from a Times piece:
California called for order. Wracked by the pandemic, littered with tent camps, frightened by smash-and-grab robberies and anti–Asian American hate crimes, voters in two of the most progressive cities sent a message on Tuesday: Restore stability.
There is a breathtaking amount of work being done there. The definition of “stability,” poverty is a crime, sickness somehow is also a crime, Asian Americans want a carceral response. It’s so freighted. And it’s just their kind of “Hey, here’s our conclusion, take this away,” you know?
AK: I think I want to highlight something that you said, which is incredibly important. Obviously, there’s so much misinformation and propaganda in there. But one thing in particular stands out. And there were a few other moments in the Times coverage where it was a little bit more explicit about this. But essentially what the Times is saying is that there is a tradeoff between what it calls order and stability, and civil rights, or humane treatment of people in the criminal system, and that by being more “lenient,” we actually lead to less stability and order.
This is the core flaw, and what I call propaganda element, at the center of so much New York Times reporting. And I think the reason is that there is a scientific consensus. What the Times is doing is violating that scientific consensus, as if the Times were saying that climate change is not happening. There is a scientific consensus that the solution to problems of drug use and mental illness and homelessness and the low-level behavior and activity that the Times is referring to when it talks about “disorder,” there’s a consensus that you do not solve those problems through more police, prosecutors and prisons.
Those problems must be solved through investments in medical care and mental health treatment, and affordable housing and places to live, and investment in schools. One of the most robust findings in the scientific literature is that investment in early childhood education, in schools and teachers, actually reduces all forms of crime years into the future.
We know all of these things. What the Times is trying to do is tell people you have to choose between respecting people’s rights and treating them “leniently,” and safety. And this is false, because the only way we’re going to get to real safety in our society, the way that every other comparably wealthy country has achieved much higher levels of safety and lower levels of violence, is by actually investing in the things that lead to safety.
There’s one other thing that I want to point out, which I think is very important. The Times suggests that the voters and the politicians who are pursuing progressive policies somehow don’t care about safety. They say, “Some voters are foremost demanding action on systemic disparities, while others are focused on their own sense of safety in their homes and neighborhoods.”
So this says, “Some people care about social justice, while other people care about safety.” That is absurd. Does anyone seriously believe that the millions of poor people, Black people, young people, immigrants, teachers, nurses, public health experts, faith leaders, crime survivors, who’ve been fighting against systemic injustice and inequality in their community, they don’t care about the safety, also, of their neighborhoods? That is just such a false dichotomy, and it’s so prevalent in reporting in the New York Times over the last couple of years,
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Alec Karakatsanis of Civil Rights Corps. The book Usual Cruelty: The Complicity of Lawyers in the Criminal Injustice System is out now from the New Press. Thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
AK: Thank you so much.