By Ashley Archibald
A 90-minute KOMO special, “The Fight for the Soul of Seattle” debuted on Dec. 13, prompting alarm among homeless advocates. The program, a sequel to the infamous (and viral) “Seattle is Dying” special, presents Seattle as a seedy den of iniquity fostered by elected officials with lenient policies toward drugs and crime.
Since 2013, KOMO has been owned by the right-leaning Sinclair media conglomerate. Much of its recent programming, including “Seattle Is Dying,” seems aimed at painting a misleading portrait of a city in chaos for a national audience primed to believe the worst about progressive West Coast cities.
“The Fight for the Soul of Seattle” aims to reveal a city held hostage by a few thousand people experiencing homelessness caught in the thrall of addiction, propped up by lenient harm reduction policies, and never facing the consequences of their actions—unlike the upstanding (housed) citizens who suffer at their hands. It throws in references to the uprising against police brutality sparked by the death of George Floyd at the knee of a Minneapolis police officer as further evidence of social unraveling.
In reality, it is 90 minutes of tape exploiting the most vulnerable people in Seattle, shoved through a sepia filter and tailor-made to confirm the preexisting beliefs of people who wish they never had to see a poor person again.
To be clear, Seattle has issues. Homelessness and drug use are real. The human suffering on the streets cannot be swept away. But the weakness in “The Fight for the Soul of Seattle” stem from the fact that it fails to grapple with root causes, instead using homelessness as a wedge issue.
Much like its prequel “Seattle is Dying,” “The Fight for the Soul of Seattle” takes real problems — homelessness, drug addiction and the ensuing impacts on the city — and magnifies them into a force that is destroying the Emerald City without engaging with solutions
“I’m going to start by saying this,” reporter Eric Johnson intones at the top of the piece. “Seattle no longer feels the need to stop anyone from doing anything for any reason at any time.” The words land over images of homeless people asleep on the ground, exposed to the elements, evidence of the city’s culture of permissiveness.
Much like its prequel “Seattle is Dying,” which ran in March 2019, “The Fight for the Soul of Seattle” takes real problems — homelessness, drug addiction and the ensuing impacts on the city — and magnifies them into a force that is destroying the Emerald City without engaging with solutions like affordable housing, access to mental health services, provision of appropriate shelter space and the ability to raise funds through equitable taxation.
As though housed people do not commit crimes. As though they do not suffer from addiction. As though homelessness was some kind of moral failing.
If there is any kind of failing here, it is one of journalism.
“The Fight for the Soul of Seattle” is replete with long-distance shots of people experiencing homelessness at the nadir of their lives, including some who Johnson alleges are using drugs right on camera. But there is no evidence that Johnson spoke to the people whose lives he trots out on screen as proof of Seattle’s decline. This is bad practice, but it’s also perilous. In Johnson’s previous work, “Seattle is Dying,” he included long-distance shots of a man rolling on the ground, insinuating that he was homeless.
Crosscut reporter David Kroman found Robert Champagne, who hadn’t been homeless in more than three years by the time “Seattle is Dying” aired.
And, while he insinuates that the block in front of the Morrison Hotel—site of the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s main shelter—is the most dangerous area of Seattle, Johnson did not bother to contact the shelter itself.
I know this because I did.
Daniel Malone is the executive director of DESC, Seattle’s largest shelter provider. In the nine months since the coronavirus pandemic began, DESC decamped from its main shelter to the Red Lion hotel in Renton, although it still offers housing at the Morrison and behavioral health services in the vicinity.
“It’s not like we picked up and left,” Malone said.
Had KOMO contacted him for the piece, Malone said, he would have shared the stark reality. He would have explained the efforts that DESC goes through to provide help to people dealing with serious mental health challenges. He would have explained the limitations of what they are able to provide.
“But I didn’t have that opportunity,” Malone said.
Scott Lindsay, the former public safety advisor to Mayor Ed Murray, did.
“Let’s be super clear,” Lindsay says. “It is the drugs.”
In a follow-up interview via email, Lindsay clarified that he objects to the way that the city handles homelessness and crime.
“In particular, I am critical of how the city handles the small subset of the larger homeless population who are struggling with substance use disorders and mental health challenges and commit crimes on a daily basis to buy drugs,” Lindsay wrote.
People in that situation receive little help should they end up in King County jail, Lindsay wrote, and the “forceful intervention” that he calls for in the program could be a choice between incarceration or treatment.
“Not intervening in these lives—simply releasing someone back onto the streets to reoffend—is not working,” Lindsay wrote.
This is the narrative that KOMO pushed throughout “The Fight for the Soul of Seattle,” first by showing images of “lawlessness” on Seattle’s streets, interviewing housed people who have been victimized, and even traveling to San Francisco to speak with a man named Tom Wolf who attributes his own rehabilitation to “one cop” who arrested him over and over again.
But that narrative suffers from a deficit of fact.
In January 2020, The Seattle Times’ Danny Westneat wrote a piece called “‘Third World hellhole?’ New data shows Seattle had lowest property crime rate in decades.” In it, Westneat — not a writer known in Seattle’s advocacy circles as a “dove” — showed that in 2019 robbery, burglary and other property crimes was down, “with the raw number of property crimes (mostly thefts) the lowest recorded since 2013.”
Violent crime was also down, Westneat noted.
“How can we have historically low crime, but also be in a frenzy about it to the point that we’re a Third-World hellhole?” Westneat asked. “Social media, probably. Plus a conflation of homelessness with crime.”
Visible poverty stokes fear or disgust among people who are not, themselves, experiencing it. A 2006 study by Princeton researchers Lasana Harris and Susan Fiske showed that people’s prefrontal cortexes operate differently when they see people experiencing homelessness, categorizing them as something foreign—a member of an outgroup, or less than human.
Programs like “The Fight for the Soul of Seattle” either compound such perceptions, at worst, or do nothing to negate them, at best.
This is the problem with programs like “The Fight for the Soul of Seattle”—they trade on tragedies like homelessness without talking about evidence-based solutions. The homelessness crisis in Seattle and other major metropolitan areas is the end result of decades of policy failure as wealth concentrates in the hands of the few and the federal government disinvests in affordable housing.
Seattle, like other urban centers, is beginning to grapple with these realities in a real way by trying to invest in housing and communities that have long felt neglected and victimized. TV specials that demonize people without housing may be a reaction not just to the real problems of poverty and violence, but to the fact that governments are finally ready to do something about them beyond shoving them out of sight and out of mind.
At the end of the day, there’s only so much Seattle can do. The city does not have endless resources to right historic wrongs. The state of Washington can’t tap into the wealth of its most affluent residents like the Bill Gateses and Jeff Bezoses of the world because an income tax is currently illegal. It will take a federal response to change the system, to open up the health care supports that are needed to tackle addiction and mental illness and pay for the affordable housing options necessary to get people off the street. Seattle won a battle by raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, but that’s still not enough for the average person to live on.
The solutions to this crisis are not mysterious. They’re backed by deep research and science. KOMO posits that we are in a fight for “the soul of Seattle,” and I agree. The city’s soul is on the line, and the battle is over how we choose to treat those with the least.
Ashley Archibald is a Seattle-based writer and former reporter at Real Change.