Last month I wrote about an extraordinary news special produced by station KOMO in Seattle. Provocatively titled “Seattle is Dying” the hour-long special argued that the homeless problem in the city was a disaster for residents thanks to policies that let people with addictions or mental problems live in a law-free zone on the city’s streets.
Reporter Eric Johnson who wrote and narrated the special posted it on his Facebook page and it became a kind of community gathering space for thousands of Seattle residents who reacted strongly to what was in the piece. Most of those reactions were positive, i.e. agreeing that the city seemed to be experiencing a decline as a result of bad policies. I collected a couple dozen of the responses here.
But while many people in Seattle were saying the special was on to something, some of the city’s elites hired a PR firm to fight back. A writer and researcher named Christopher F. Rufo wrote about the effort for City Journal:
Earlier this month, leaked documents revealed that a group of prominent nonprofits—the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Campion Advocacy Fund, the Raikes Foundation, and the Ballmer Group—hired a PR firm, Pyramid Communications, to conduct polling, create messaging, and disseminate the resulting content through a network of silent partners in academia, the press, government, and the nonprofit sector. The campaign, #SeattleForAll, is a case study in what writer James Lindsay calls “idea laundering”—creating misinformation and legitimizing it as objective truth through repetition in sympathetic media.
James Lindsay is one of the academics who was involved in the expose of “grievance studies” journals. The message the PR campaign generated was intended to put a smiley face on the disturbing facts covered in the “Seattle is Dying” special:
The key messages of the campaign include a number of misleading claims, including: “Seattle is making progress to end homelessness,” “1 in 4 people experiencing homelessness in our community struggle with drug or alcohol abuse,” and “[62 percent of Seattle voters believe] we are not spending enough to address homelessness.” All three contentions fail to meet basic scrutiny: street homelessness has increased 131 percent over the past five years; King County’s lawsuit against Purdue Pharma admits that “the majority of the homeless population is addicted to or uses opioids” (not one in four); and 62 percent of Seattle voters agree to the statement “we are not spending enough” only when it is directly prefaced in the polling questionnaire by the phrase “other cities of the same size are spending 2 to 3 times the amount that Seattle is and are seeing significant reductions in homelessness”—itself an unsubstantiated claim. (When the same question is presented neutrally, without the framing, support for “we are not spending enough” drops to 7 percent).
These talking points, which you can see spelled out here, wound up in multiple stories at outlets that received funding from the same groups who hired the PR firm for their coverage of homelessness. For instance:
“New poll shows the majority in Seattle say we have a moral obligation to help homeless people, and we need to spend more,” declared Seattle Times data journalist Gene Balk. Catherine Hinrichsen, director of Seattle University’s Project on Family Homelessness, published “6 reasons why KOMO’s [Seattle’s ABC affiliate, which broadcast Seattle Is Dying] take on homelessness is the wrong one” in the local magazine Crosscut, arguing that the documentary “conflates homelessness with drug use, mental illness, and crime.” And Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan told reporters that “we have made a lot of progress” and dismissed the documentary as “an opinion piece.” Her office pushed the #SeattleForAll messaging on government social media channels.
Most of the reporters didn’t mention where they got the information they were spreading (or who paid for it). Rufo concludes:
The “counter-narrative” to the Seattle Is Dying documentary was not a spontaneous reaction of a diverse group of experts; it was a planned effort by Seattle’s philanthropic, academic, media, and governmental elites to steamroll critics. Seattle’s institutional powers, in other words, attempted to quash the emerging public consensus that the city’s approach to homelessness is failing.
So the city had a moment of realization that there was a serious problem which was not getting better under current policies and leadership and these well-heeled groups put together a narrative to deny it. Rufo told radio host Jason Rantz the message to the city was: Trust the experts rather than your own eyes.
“So there’s kind of this insular world and they’re really highly attached to this world view that what they’re doing is working, that they are kind of bestowing their goodness upon the people of Seattle, and they felt like the Seattle is Dying documentary was such a devastating blow to their credibility,” he continued. “Keep in mind these are folks who have essentially been in charge of homelessness policy for the past decade. And they came back with this huge level of defensiveness trying to poke holes in (Seattle is Dying) trying to discredit Eric Johnson the reporter, and trying to persuade the public to not believe their own eyes, but to trust the experts because they know better than we do and they should still be in charge.”
This doesn’t seem very convincing and I sort of doubt it’s going to work if the actual situation on the streets continues to get worse. The Seattle is Dying special was, if nothing else, laying down a marker of sorts. Unless things improve from this point, people are going to point back to it as a reminder that the current policies haven’t been working. At some point, there has to be a reckoning for the people promoting those policies.
In this clip, James Lindsay attributes the phrase “idea laundering” to Bret Weinstein (the professor who was run out of Evergreen State College). He defines it as way to transform prejudice and opinion into respectable knowledge by passing it through layers of academic process which exist to promote these opinions.
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