Different and the same, San Francisco

By Jessica L. Beyer, Postdoc.

Insight from San Francisco, U.S.A.

Last week I was in San Francisco to present at the International Studies Association (ISA) Annual Conference.  I was presenting two papers.  One paper was on my own research about online communities and political mobilization and the other was about a project I work on for the Jackson School called the Knowledge Network of World Events & News (KNOW) project. With the KNOW project, we are trying to create a learning portal contextualizes current international events with historical, political, social, and cultural information. We have been working on this project for more than two years now and have made a lot of progress, although it is not yet live.

Many people associate San Francisco with the Golden Gate Bridge or with hippies in the 1960s or as one of the brave beginning places of the gay rights movement. But, whenever I’m in San Francisco I think of my father.

From December 1970 to March 1972, my father was in the U.S. Army stationed in San Francisco. The only son of an impoverished single mother, he had done everything he could to avoid being sent to Vietnam—including very seriously considering leaving for Canada as tens of thousands of people did. In the end, he accepted his fate and went to boot camp. At the last minute before being sent to fight in a war he did not believe in and that he was sure would leave him broken, a miracle occurred. As part of his B.S. degree, chosen and dragged out to avoid the draft, he had worked in a lab and an Army lab in San Francisco needed someone with his type of experience.

The army base where my father was sent was at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge in such a picturesque spot that it is now an expensive luxury resort. This moment of grace is one that he still talks about with huge gratitude. Not only was he saved from a war that left so many broken, but he was stationed with my mother’s long time on-again off-again boyfriend, setting the stage for what he still says was the most fortunate moment in his life, meeting my mother.

I associate this city—both the imagined and the physical—with my father as a young man, far younger than I am now myself. When he talks about that time he says he was, “just walking around and looking stupid.” But I think about him, saved from Vietnam and unknowingly connected to the man who would change his life by introducing him to my mother in 1972. And the picture that I have in my head when I hear the name San Francisco is of him as a young man riding his motorcycle across the Golden Gate Bridge in the sunshine, laughing.

During this trip to San Francisco to present my work along with hundreds of academics at the ISA conference, I spend my time wondering what is different and the same in this city where his decommissioned army base is now a luxury resort.

By 1970 the war in Vietnam was wildly unpopular in the U.S. Many viewed it as illegitimate and many believed the U.S. involvement there was a mistake. The more democratic nature of the Vietnam draft meant that, as my mother says, by the time my father was drafted 1970 everyone she knew had a friend, family member, or acquaintance who had died in Vietnam. This cruel reach of the war was particularly true for her home state.

(This is not to say that the draft was democratic. Certain socioeconomic and racial groups were far less likely to be able to receive a draft deferment by attending college and there was controversy about the distribution of the numbers. For example, experts in this draft would not be surprised to hear that my father had a low draft number as men born before 1951 in November or December had disproportionately low numbers.)

In addition, contributing directly to this perception of the war was the press. Heroic journalists sent back photos and accounts of what they were seeing—often becoming part of the story themselves. In SIS 201, Joel Migdal often uses the photo of Phan Thị Kim Phúc running down the road, her clothing burned off by napalm, as an example of the power of photojournalism and the media in the 20th Century. Nick Ut, the man who snapped the photograph took her and the other injured children to the hospital, where he continued to visit her while she recovered. More than 63 journalists died in Vietnam, giving their lives to provide a window to the horrors that humans can visit upon each other.

During the Vietnam War, the U.S. went through a media revolution in the form of the television. While it is debated whether changes in news coverage mirrored American opinion of the war or helped lead it, through their televisions the U.S. public was given a front row seat on the realities of war and the consequences of American foreign policy choices, both for American soldiers as well as the people in Vietnam—and, unknown to many, to the people in Cambodia and Laos as well.

The valiant reporting done in Vietnam is a story that runs parallel to the release of the Pentagon Papers and the role of major news providers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post in printing the classified documents that revealed systemic lying and corruption at the highest levels of government and across political parties. Between these changes and the brave reporting of the Watergate scandal, many view this as a golden age in reporting. It is often cited as exemplary of the essential role that the media plays in a healthy democracy.

However, my students now think of the media as untrustworthy, corrupt, and partisan. Last quarter in a class on technology and social movements I asked my students how many of them trusted the media. The answer was none.

Where does this leave us? Most who study democracy agree that for a democracy to function a free press is necessary to serve as a counterweight to power. But today, people do not trust the media and the media itself is going through a time of incredible disruption and change.

While the internet means that we can access unprecedented amounts of information, we live in an age in which major news providers are unable to sustain old commercial models. The gatekeepers of information find themselves going bankrupt and the number of foreign bureaus supported by news organizations has been in strict decline. Out of financial necessity, news providers are using the same correspondents, stories, and accounts of stories as a way to cut costs—homogenizing news coverage. Single reporters based out of cities thousands of miles away from “the action” are now the “on the ground” journalist for major events. And, many international events are never even covered.

Meanwhile, internet technology is leading to a democratization of news provision. Anyone who can get online and can make a free blog can become a reporter. Anyone with a cell phone can now record events in real time. As Zeynep Tufekci reports, within an hour of any important thing happening in the world, a new video of it is uploaded to YouTube. This perhaps makes it the largest news provider in the world. Sites such as YouTube and WikiLeaks give us countless amounts of information at our fingertips, but it is an explosion of information without editing, filtering, or structures to provide meaning. Certainly, this has its own power and virtues, but it also presents a new set of challenges. We continue to try to understand what all of this means—and, in a “post Arab Spring” world, what it means for democratization, in particular. What does it mean for democracy?

When our students read about what is happening in Syria, they often come to their instructors and ask us to explain to them what is happening. They ask us because they trust us to give them the full sweep of history behind an event and they know that most of us will try to present the information with as little bias as we can. I have had students ask me about topics such as Middle East politics or WikiLeaks and tell me that they don’t know if they can trust what they find in online searches. They don’t trust the news providers and they feel overwhelmed by the firehose of information—and it’s not just our students, we all feel this way to some extent.

As I mentioned at the start of the post, this is what I was presenting about in San Francisco. The KNOW project is intended to step into the space created by the decline in foreign coverage and the sea of uncontextualized and unedited information available about the world online. As we work on building this tool, we have been using undergraduate students in the continual process of building resources so as to provide an information source that educates, but that also educates as it is produced.

In fact, this blog is part of that effort and the stories shared here will one day serve to contextualize events that are happening on the ground in the moment. Our hope is that drawing on the personal experiences of our community members will give people a tactile feel for the grit and beauty of the places all over the world where people just like you and me are living, loving, and riding a motorcycle, laughing at the glory of being young and having cheated death for just a moment.

If you are interested in the project, please feel free to monitor our project blog.


Jessica L. Beyer is a postdoc in the Center for Global Studies in the Jackson School where she works with Sara Curran on the KNOW project. She is also an alumnus of the B.A. program (International Political Economy track!). She studies online communities and political mobilization and maintains a research blog on her website.

The photo at the start of this post is of her father, Richard Beyer, in his uniform.