During my year in journalism school, I took an elective class in land use law—zoning, planning, variances, that sort of thing. One of the major themes of the class was that there isn’t much law in land use law; for all the legalese involved, it’s mostly politics.
Damien Cave and Lynn Waddell, authors of today’s New York Times story on the rejection of a proposed homeless encampment in Florida, seem to be operating on the same understanding. Their lede:
When retirees say they have bought guns to protect themselves from a plan to house the homeless a quarter mile from their neighborhood, Florida politicians pay attention. When 200 people show up at a 9 a.m. meeting, some wearing yellow T-shirts that say “no tent city,” elected officials tend to go along.
The NYT story, read alongside an account of the meeting from the St. Petersburg Times, also offers a great example of how journalists can shape perceptions of an event while remaining within the bounds of objectivity. Here’s how Cave and Waddell describe a decisive moment:
Three of [the county commissioners] who voted no — Al Higginbotham, Kevin White and Ken Hagan — said there must be a better place for the homeless. They also cited crime as a concern, despite testimony from the police in Pinellas County, who called [a similar] camp there a success. Mr. Higginbotham initially seemed to favor the idea. “In these tough financial times, someone has stepped forward and has been willing to reach out a hand of generosity,” he said. “That’s what this country has been founded on.”
Then he introduced a motion to reject the plan. For explanation, he read accusations from police incident reports at the Pinellas County camp, including those for domestic violence, theft and an alleged rape. He offered little context: In the rape case the victim was a camp resident who had recently smoked crack cocaine and refused to prosecute.
And here’s the St. Pete Times account of the same portion of the proceedings:
Commissioner Hagan said that he wants to find a solution to the homeless problem but that the proposed location is inappropriate.
After reading a list of criminal charges against some Pinellas Hope residents, Higginbotham said, “With that, I’ll make a motion for denial.”