When San Francisco voters recalled their reform prosecutor Chesa Boudin in June of this year, The (non-San Francisco-based) New York Times ran several articles about the national implications of Boudin’s removal. “The choices seemed to signal a shift to the center that was likely to reverberate through Democratic politics across the nation,” the publication said in its June 8 report on the vote.
One follow-up article insisted it was “a vote that is set to reverberate through Democratic politics nationwide as the party fine-tunes its messaging on crime before midterm elections.” The ostensible lesson of Boudin’s recall, the paper of record warned, would “echo as Democrats rethink their approach to crime.”
Last year, in anticipation of the recall, The Times framed the impending vote as “a test of the national movement to elect [reform] prosecutors.” Days before the vote actually took place, The Times was back again to assure readers that “A vote to push Mr. Boudin from office would signal to Democrats that talking tough on crime could be a winning message in the midterm elections, and deal a blow to a national movement that has elected progressive prosecutors in cities such as Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles.”
Clearly the stakes couldn’t be higher. The Boudin recall sent a clear message to Democrats everywhere that those concerned with electability had to be Tough on Crime and reject reforms brought about by the Black Lives Matter and George Floyd movements. We had in the Boudin recall, the Times repeatedly told us, an undeniable bellwether making this point clear as day.
So what does The New York Times have to say about the half-dozen reform DAs who won in last week’s midterm election? It turns out: absolutely nothing.
It’s useful to note that the definition of “reform DA” can be vague and certainly open to interpretation, but the following DAs who have rejected the rhetoric of Tough on Crime won on Nov 8. In Hennepin County, Minnesota, Mary Moriarty defeated her opponent Martha Holton Dimick. In Chittenden County, Vermont, Sarah George ran unopposed and won. In Dallas County, Texas, Democrat John Creuzot defeated Tough on Crime Republican Faith Johnson. In Bexar County, Texas, Joe Gonzalez defeated police-endorsed Republican Marc LaHood. In Durham County, North Carolina, Satana Deberry ran unopposed and won. In Polk County, Iowa, Kimberly Graham won the race for county attorney by defeating Republican Allan Richards.
While their approaches and the specific political contexts of their races varied, all of these prosecutors rejected the Tough on Crime posture The Times told us voters were crying out for. Surely, this must portend a shift in the national mood of Democrats on the subject of crime, no? Surely, The Times is going to inform its national readership that these victories mean Democrats can now safely embrace the politics of decarceration and criminal justice reform?
Alas, The New York Times has not published a single post-election story on any of these DA wins. Though readers did get a brief mention of Sarah George in a lurid front-page story about a supposed runaway bike theft problem in Burlington, Vermont.
So why is the San Francisco recall election a national news story that has vast, sweeping national implications, and these other elections are not? It’s not clear. It can’t be a question of size. Hennepin County, Minnesota, has over 400,000 more people than San Francisco County. Dallas County has 1.7 million more people than San Francisco County. Bexar County 1.2 million more.
Clearly it’s not a matter of location either. The New York Times is not a Bay Area newspaper—it’s located in Midtown West Manhattan, 2,565 miles from San Francisco. The only meaningful difference is that Boudin’s recall election happened in June rather than during the crowded midterm news cycle, but over a week has passed and The New York Times is not wanting for resources. So, clearly, if DA elections and recalls have tremendous national implications, the outlet should explain how these progressive prosecutor wins will “echo” nationally. They should let their readers know how these victories for reformers will “reverberate through Democratic politics across the nation.” How they “signal a shift” to the left. Right?
If not, the obvious (but still very important) question is: why not?
The reason for the selective focus on the Boudin recall is obvious: It fits The Narrative. The Narrative centrist newspapers like The Times sought to promote is that Black Lives Matter reforms had become politically toxic and should be abandoned in favor of calls for more police funding and longer sentences, not because their reporters earnestly believed these things to be true, but because they had an editorial ethos that wanted them to be. Any cursory survey of The Times’ broader crime coverage throughout the years will make it clear that they institutionally believe Serious People Who Are Serious About Crime, by definition, demand more cops and longer sentences. The half-dozen DAs who won on reformist platforms undercut The Narrative, and thus must be ignored, even though three of the counties in which said DAs won their elections are much larger and much more politically contested than San Francisco.
But The Narrative cannot be undermined. A Red Wave animated by a backlash to crime was supposed to be the story last Wednesday morning. But it wasn’t. Indeed, many high-profile candidates whom Republicans tried to smear as “soft on crime” because of their previous reformist positions, like Senatorial Candidate John Fetterman (D-PA), outperformed Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. This isn’t to say every reformer won, or that the subject of “crime” is always a political winner for Democrats, but it’s a messy picture with mixed signals that depend heavily on the specific politics of a given constituency. And, given that all the other reform DA wins were ignored, it’s clear The New York Times’ sweeping conclusions from San Francisco’s recall last June were far less about accurately reading the political mood than they were about actively trying to shape it.