Last week, Fox News prime-time host Tucker Carlson aired “American Dystopia,” a weeklong special on homelessness in San Francisco. Framed as shining a spotlight on a city with a large and highly visible homeless population, “American Dystopia” was just another chance for Carlson to further Fox News’ quest to attack the homeless and the liberal politicians who supposedly enable them. Over the course of the week, Carlson repeatedly criticized San Francisco and California lawmakers for not criminalizing homelessness while interviewing law enforcement officials, business owners, and privately hired police he brought on to complain about the issue.
Each part of the special had a different focus, but they all carried the same theme: Democrats are turning cities into filthy dumps -- and if you aren’t careful, your city will be next. Carlson used a conveniently vulnerable population as a bludgeon against Democrats, urban areas, and the “coastal elites.” When the narrative collided with reality, Carlson and his team left out important context and information that would cast doubt on their fearmongering. And by painting liberal cities as crime-ridden hellholes, Carlson transparently tried to further the fraught, rural-urban political divide ahead of the 2020 election.
In fact, San Francisco’s homeless population has actually decreased since 2004, “when the city launched a series of long, intensive and only partially successful efforts to put every street person under a roof.” Now, San Francisco lawmakers are seeking to implement policies directed at addressing the housing crisis affecting lower- and middle-income residents of the city. But rather than discussing these efforts, Carlson opted to play invasive footage of homeless people while commenting in disgust as his production crew filmed them defecating or administering drugs in public; one man shouted expletives at the camera crew for filming him but they continued.
Carlson and Fox News relentlessly focused on homelessness throughout 2019, generally covering the issue in a dehumanizing way, referring to homeless people as “drugged-out zombies,” and describing the cities in focus as “almost Third World in their decay” and facing “a complete breakdown of the basic needs of civilization.” A Media Matters analysis revealed that over the course of the year, nearly 300 Fox segments mentioned homelessness.
This continued coverage appears to have influenced President Donald Trump, who is known to treat Fox News personalities as presidential advisers. In September, The Washington Post reported that Trump “has ordered White House officials to launch a sweeping effort to address homelessness in California.” And in the final weeks of 2019, Trump tweeted about the issue multiple times, sometimes attacking House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) for supposedly not doing more to address homelessness. According to Media Matters’ Matt Gertz, at least five of those tweets directly echoed Fox News segments.
Despite the dramatic overtures, uninvited harassment of the destitute, and high-definition shots of fecal matter, Carlson’s latest man-on-the-street “investigation” offered little of substance. Here’s our review:
Carlson began his series by declaring, “It’s hard to wreck a place as beautiful as San Francisco, but they have effectively done it.” “Civilization itself is coming apart,” he warned, including “on the city’s sidewalks, which are littered with junkies and feces and dirty needles. The jewel of our Pacific coast is now filthier and more chaotic than downtown Mumbai, India. Literally.”
After issuing a graphic content warning, likely because of the crew’s apparent obsession with filming feces, Carlson reminded his audience of the purpose of this project: “As you watch it, remember this: This is what they would like to do to your neighborhood.” As his Fox production crew played footage of drugs and feces, Carlson narrated for his audience: “Addicts do drugs on the sidewalk. Homeless people defecate in the street.” He talked about seeing paramedics saving a man “who had just overdosed on the sidewalk,” adding that “such scenes are becoming common in San Francisco.” Carlson also declared at one point that “we filmed drug dealers selling drugs in broad daylight.”
During this segment, Carlson interviewed a San Francisco police lieutenant who called the city “San Fran-pyscho” before listing a slew of crimes that receive a “citation,” which she complained are typically “not charged” by city prosecutors. Carlson then began discussing crime statistics in the city, claiming that “many criminals never even step foot in a courtroom” but failing to provide an actual link between homelessness and the crimes that he was discussing.
Describing San Francisco’s needle exchange program, which first began in 1988 to address the spread of HIV and other diseases, Carlson said, “Rather than confront the drug use, like a normal city, San Francisco enables drug use.”
Carlson also interviewed Erica Sandberg, who argued that crime is “out of control” and San Francisco has become “more dirty, more dangerous.” Sandberg writes for The City Journal, a quarterly magazine published by The Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank which was largely responsible for popularizing and defending the now-largely debunked theory of “broken windows” policing. The theory's supporters argued that aggressive policing of low-level offenses -- such as property crime -- would prevent and deter more serious crime.
Despite the idea’s widespread use, there was little empirical evidence found of a tangible “broken windows” effect, and the types of policies pushed by The City Journal and Manhattan Institute led to increased targeting of minorities and low-income neighborhoods, as well as courts and the justice system overwhelmed with low-level, nonviolent offenses.
Throughout this first part of this series, Carlson and his crew seemed to be trying to connect rampant, unchecked criminality to homelessness -- for instance, by discussing violent crimes in narration while airing unrelated footage of homeless people in the background. Yet statistics show that San Francisco’s rates of both violent and property crimes are decreasing, contradicting Carlson's assertion that the city’s prosecutors “do nothing” or choose to ignore the problem.
Carlson introduced the second part of the series by claiming that “law and order has been effectively suspended” in San Francisco, and he pinned the blame squarely on “left-wing prosecutors.” He declared, “In today’s San Francisco, those who follow the law are helpless, while criminals reign supreme.” Carlson concluded this dismal commentary with the same recurring message from part one: “It’s depressing, but you ought to see it because what they’ve done there, they want to do to your neighborhood. For real.”
Part two spotlighted Gilles Desaulnier, the owner of Urban Harvest Market, who complained about homeless people shoplifting and disrupting business at his store. Carlson depicted Desaulnier’s store as a battleground in San Francisco's housing crisis, just one more example of a neighborhood overrun by the city's homeless population. But the segment failed to note that the store is located across the street from a large homeless shelter where individuals must be physically present to secure a bed each night, incentivizing them to remain nearby.
In part three, Carlson attacked Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom for seeking money to address the homelessness problem, saying that additional funding will “do nothing to reduce the incidence of homelessness.” Carlson said that further funding will fail to fix the “core problem,” which he claimed is “police inaction against crime and vagrancy.”
He then introduced an interview with a local privately hired police officer, Cody Clements, who works for private businesses, merchants, and citizens, saying that in San Francisco, “police inaction against crime and vagrancy has become so bad that heavily taxed locals are turning to private police -- they’re hiring their own; they have no choice.” But he failed to note that private police forces are hardly unique to “dystopian” San Francisco, and the Patrol Special program in San Francisco has existed for over a century.
Clements described his average day: “Some of the most common calls that I get from residents [are] somebody setting up a tent in front of my house, a homeless person going through our garbage.” Since Clements is not a police officer, his tactics appeared to be limited to harassing homeless people until they leave the area he covers.
The segment also highlighted the debunked narrative that most people experience homelessness as a result of personal choices by conveniently featuring a man who said that he’ll be homeless “forever” as a “choice” and quoting Clements saying, “A lot of them choose to be on the street because it’s the lifestyle they like.”
Part four of Carlson's series purported to focus on the “drastic” ways San Francisco residents are dealing with the astronomical increase in real estate prices throughout the city. It’s widely accepted that the influx of wealth from Silicon Valley has rendered San Francisco one of the most expensive cities to live in in the U.S. To demonstrate this, Fox aired footage of Carlson’s production crew speaking with a woman who lives on a quarter-million-dollar yacht in San Francisco because property on land is more expensive, attempting to link “drastic” housing decisions with the existence of homeless people and drug users.
The segment interspersed shots of homeless people and tents with claims that a poor “quality of life” is forcing middle-class residents to leave the city, all while ignoring the reality of life for low-income people in a city where some residents consider living on a yacht a more affordable option than traditional housing and the median rent is $4,312 a month.
The Fox host also used this segment to launch into an attack on San Francisco’s new district attorney, Chesa Boudin, who has been a foil on Carlson’s show since he was elected in 2019. Carlson concluded part four by saying, “The city was destroyed because individuals enacted and preserved disastrous policies because they’re ideologues.”
Carlson’s final segment of “American Dystopia” was billed as a deep dive into the newly sworn-in San Francisco district attorney. But it amounted to little more than conservative agitprop set to dramatic percussion.
Boudin is a progressive district attorney who seeks to address the crisis in San Francisco while criticizing the criminalization of homelessness there. He has said that relying on the jail system to deal with drug addiction and mental illness is “really expensive, inhumane and ineffective. ... Right now the jail system is the No. 1 administrator of mental health services in the city, and so we’re waiting for people to commit a crime to get them help.”
In part five, Carlson’s team painted Boudin’s efforts to implement criminal justice reform as “overlook[ing] serious crime” in the city. At one point, Carlson even mocked the concept of “criminal justice reform” and suggested that Boudin’s successful election is evidence that residents are “essentially doubling down on the city’s policy of going easy on crime and criminals.” Carlson’s team asked Tony Montoya, head of San Francisco’s police union (SFPOA), whether “criminals are happy” that Boudin was elected. Montoya replied “almost definitely” and later implied that Boudin’s election was an invitation to sex traffickers.
Fox did not disclose in the segment that the SFPOA was accused of “trying to buy the DA’s office” after it spent more than $650,000 opposing Boudin’s candidacy, largely due to the union’s opposition to his goal of implementing more accountability and transparency in issues of police misconduct. Boudin himself characterized the SFPOA campaign against him as an attempt to mislead the public on his stance on crime, telling the San Francisco Examiner, “They are suggesting to voters that I am unwilling to seek severe punishment in cases of serious crimes. … In no part have I said that.”
Carlson and his team also failed to mention that Boudin’s efforts to decriminalize homelessness are intended to direct funds away from the prosecution of low-level offenses and toward community resources and programs dedicated to helping alleviate the effects of poverty in the city. Boudin has made clear that he plans to implement major criminal justice reform in San Francisco, promising to “confront racial disparities in the criminal justice system, work to end mass incarceration, and hold police more accountable in cases of brutality.”
Carlson’s weeklong series was an excuse to cherry-pick incidents and host a slew of biased guests to paint San Francisco as a liberal hellhole. The special served little purpose other than to dramatically present the city as a right-wing caricature, dehumanize homeless people in an attempt to push the criminalization of poverty through “broken windows” policing, and attack liberal Democrats for attempting to implement criminal justice reform.
Fox's previous coverage of homelessness has already served as a bludgeon for its most powerful viewer to use against those most vulnerable. Unfortunately, Carlson's “American Dystopia” takes the network's relentlessly negative focus on the homeless to a new low.