Mar 1 1990

No Hope for the Homeless at the New York Times

The New York Times‘ campaign against the homeless, begun in 1988 with an article charging beggars with “hardening New Yorkers against their fellow citizens” (7/29/88), has recently heated up.

The latest barrage began with a January 26 op-ed column by Myron Magnet, a Fortune magazine editor, who was given nearly half the page to make the point that growing numbers of homeless do not reflect “rising injustice and inequality in the social order.” “Anyone who goes home by train or subway and trusts the evidence of his senses,” Magnet wrote, “knows this just isn’t so. What you see, if you stop to look, is craziness, drunkenness, dope and danger.”

Magnet’s piece, and others with a similar viewpoint that followed, were not matched with ones expressing sympathy for street people. A Times editorial made the paper’s own position clear with a Jan. 31 piece that attacked federal Judge Leonard Sand, who had ruled that the city could not ban begging in the subway. Referring to the homeless as “wild-eyed vagrants who just might be loony enough to push someone in front of a train,” the paper said that it was not callous to ban beggars from the subways because of the “officially tolerated exercise of begging rights in the streets above.”

The editorial was echoed by an op-ed appearing a week later (2/5/90), also criticizing the judge’s ruling. “What Judge Sand is urging upon us,” wrote Samuel Lipman, publisher of the neo-conservative New Criterion, “is the use of constant public irritation, provocation and threats, not for the ostensible purpose of alleviating suffering, but to cast radical doubt on the entire structure of society.”

Taking a somewhat different tack, a February 2 op-ed by Bernard Goldberg, a correspondent for CBS‘s 48 Hours, attacked the media for constantly sympathizing with the homeless and other underdogs. “So what if many of the homeless are truly drug addicts or alcoholics or simply lazy?” Goldberg asked.

He also chided the press for a supposed excess of compassion for AIDS patients and the unemployed. “When there’s a recession and workers get laid off, the press and television often portray them as innocent victims,” he wrote. “But how many stories have you seen on TV or read in the newspaper —in your entire life—that attempt to find out how many of these laid-off workers took school seriously? How many thought kids who studied were wimps, and worse?” (Is Goldberg perhaps gloating that the kids who used to call him a geek have been thrown out on the streets?)

One of the more bizarre examples of the Times‘ assault on street people was a February 15 news story on the front page of the metropolitan section. It focused on the first person to apply for a permit to beg at Manhattan’s Port Authority bus terminal, James Benagh, who turned out to have taken the permit in hopes of preventing other people from collecting money. (Benagh is, of all things, a New York Times copy editor!)

“Might not his scheme seem callous?” asked a Times reporter. “Not, he said, after his teen-age son was threatened at knife point by a beggar at the terminal and his younger son suffered an ugly insult from a panhandler.” “I’m not against helping people,” Benagh is quoted. “But I am against people pestering you.”

It might take a psychoanalyst to explain what drives the Times‘ writers to see homeless people less as victims deserving of compassion than as victimizers deserving of contempt. The Times did consult a psychoanalyst in that first story back in 1988. The homeless population “provides a new target for my homicidal fantasies,” he said, proving that doctors sometimes need more care than patients.