Over the past few months, stories about San Francisco have become ubiquitous in the national media. Everyone wants to weigh in on what’s being called the San Francisco “culture war.” Last week, PBS News Hour became the latest outlet to report on a city facing extreme income inequality, a dearth of affordable housing and an increasingly intense dispute over how the local government should react to the influx of tech companies and tech workers. The conduit for telling this story was everyone’s favorite symbol: the Google bus.
The Google buses (what residents call the chartered shuttles that transport San Francisco residents to their jobs at tech company campuses in Silicon Valley) is irresistible to journalists. I’m no exception: my first article after quitting my former job to become a reporter was about Google buses. I attended a hearing of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency packed with more reporters than that room has probably ever seen.
The image of Google buses rolling through the narrow streets of the Mission, tinted windows reflecting scenes of the neighborhood’s vaunted Latino culture—murals, vegetable stands, street vendors, pupusa joints—makes manifest the division between the people inside (tech workers) and the people outside (everyone else). In this supposed clash of cultures, the Google Bus represents neoliberal disruptive innovation: the private sector accomplishing what the public sector is too incompetent to do itself. The working-class Latinos waiting at the same bus stops for public transportation are the old San Francisco, creators of the old culture that’s being forced out.
The PBS report is just one example of a serious problem with the media’s desire to cast what’s happening in San Francisco as a “culture war.” In an almost eight-minute segment, the Mission’s Latino residents are seen but not heard. They are filmed in background shots establishing the milieu of the neighborhood, but only white San Franciscans are interviewed.
Other outlets display the same tendency to privilege the voices of the, well, privileged. New York ran a feature asking “Is San Francisco New York?” that included fifteen articles. Only two of those pieces (by Daniel Alarcón and Hua Hsu) touched on the severe economic stress affecting the city’s poor and working class. Most of the rest poked fun at the “culture” of wealthy tech workers with disposable income to spend on bad fashion, expensive coffee and private clubs. The only mention of Asian-Americans (a politically important group that’s now second only to whites in the population of this majority-minority city) was one line in an anonymous screed supposedly written by a tech worker about his sexual conquests: “If you look at Secret, 95 percent of it is Asian bitches wanting Drew Houston.”