How The Media Mishandled The Ghost Ship Fire

The ghoulish motive of being the first to document grief.

Image: Sharon Hahn Darlin

A few minutes after 11 p.m. on a Friday night in December 2016, a fire started in the Oakland warehouse known as Ghost Ship. That evening, the live/work artist space had been hosting a benefit concert for an L.A.-based record label that specializes in house music. By midnight, the space was destroyed, and thirty-six people were killed.

When word began to spread about the rising death toll — it was the deadliest fire in Oakland history, the most deaths since 2003’s fire at the Great White concert in Rhode Island — media outlets shipped reporters in to cover the tragedy. The networks sent weighty cameras and big budgets, the cable news channels sent proxies to provide a live lead-in to their split-screen shouting matches between four or five suited pundits nestled in comfortable studio digs around the country, and the East Coast publications of gravitas packed their pens and handheld tape recorders.

By the next night, they’d all arrived, a massive influx of reporters infiltrating the relatively small community. They were on the hunt, roaming for quotes and digging for narratives, to find any loose scrap — accurate or otherwise, beneficial or not — to feed their 24-hours news content monster. This isn’t a critique of media or journalism, which, when given proper resources and time necessary to follow ongoing narratives and understand the world in which they take place, does important work that benefits society. The issue in Oakland, in the weeks after Ghost Ship, was spectacle media’s piranha-like swarm on the city: moments of confusing, bubbling chaos, and a pile of bones left behind.

The mainstream media began overstepping their boundaries when an editable-by-anyone Google Doc appeared online. It was created in the hours after the fire, when information as to who was at the event, who was in the hospital, who’d perished, and who’d gotten to safety was still murky. Friends and loved ones clicked the link — passed freely far and wide, without censorship — in the hopes that, when the doc loaded, whoever they knew would be marked “safe.” “This was how we found out about our friends dying, as people were confirmed and not confirmed,” said Jonah Strauss, a music producer and engineer whose own live/workspace was lost in another Oakland fire in 2015.

The sheet also included phone numbers to close contacts of the missing, and with it spreading across an expanding network online, the media was inadvertently handed a trove of private information. Trolls eventually got a hold of the document, and did what they do, posting false information in between ethnic slurs. But before it closed, members of the media felt they should confirm the information on the doc first-hand, and so began cold-calls to the numbers, to confirm whether or not the person named was, in fact, dead.

“[The Google doc] was a great repository for loved ones to find out the right information, but then it was used against them by media outlets contacting them,” said Dustin Caruso, a native Oaklander long embedded in the music scene. “In times of tragedy like this, it’s one of the few times where you go talk to the authorities, get the information, and then if you need to, do investigative journalism later. You don’t talk to grieving families when the wounds are still fresh.”

While verifying information is at the core of journalism, in this instance, the process led to them becoming part of the story they were covering, kicking up silt in the already-clouded waters for no real benefit. No one was in any potential immediate danger that’d necessitate confirming those missing in the fire right then; the only thing at risk for waiting a day or two for official confirmation was the loss of a scoop. The only possible motives to justify these calls, then, are either for the ratings that come with being “first,” or documentation of grief in its most pure form. Both motives are utterly ghoulish.

These missteps followed on Monday night, at the candlelight vigil for the deceased at Oakland’s Lake Merritt. By then, the names of the dead had been established, so this moment, in the media’s mindset, was not about investigation or prying, but simply about capturing on an emotional event live. “All of a sudden, some camera gets shoved in our faces,” said Kit Friday, an Oakland writer who lost friends in the fire. “They’re like, ‘oh, hi, it seems like you lost someone. Do you want to talk about it?’ Fuck you. Fuck you so hard. Have we been stripped of our humanity to this level that you’re going to shove a fucking camera in someone’s face who’s clearly mourning?”

“I saw the kinds of cameras they had. You can be a few yards away and still cover it. You don’t have to be in the thick of it with your lights in everyone’s faces,” said Caruso. “There were a few people I wanted to run into, just to give them a hug and see how they’re doing. But within five minutes, I had three different reporters coming up to ask if I wanted to talk. I just ended up leaving after about an hour.”

A microphone had been set up, ostensibly to provide those grieving with a chance to honor lost loved ones, a goal quickly co-opted, perhaps accidentally, by politicians (mayor Libby Schaaf’s speech was met with raucous boos), and random members of “the scene” who felt emboldened enough to address the crowd despite, as noted in their remarks, not personally knowing anyone in the fire. One wonders if these speakers were actually addressing the crowd, or the cameras swarming within. The event’s aesthetics were such an enticing visual from above — thousands holding candles on a clear night at the lake — that most spiels were drowned out by the twirling blades of the news choppers hovering above.

After the vigil, it was clear any memorials should be held privately, away from prying eyes. But the media soon found a social opening they could exploit: Bars.

“There were reporters hanging in the Telegraph Beer Garden, trying to edge into conversations,” said Strauss. “It was really fucked up. Any place where people would hang out, they would somehow find out.”

“It felt like you couldn’t go to a lot of places without being inundated with coverage,” said Caruso.

“I went to Eli’s Mile High Club, and there was a just a swarm of cameras outside,” said Friday. “The term ‘vulture’ gets thrown out a lot, but this was truly… it was just a feast for them.”

Eli’s soon became a safe space. Under instructions by owner Billy Joe Agan, the bar instituted a media blackout; any journalists discovered to be working inside its candle-lit confines would be moved out onto the darkness of Martin Luther King Blvd. Media members still stalked outside for quotes, but past the bouncer at Eli’s, the atmosphere was free from outsider interference.

“Eli’s was a makeshift crisis center,” said Caruso. “I can’t put into words how important that was. Going to Eli’s was the place where people who were directly affected could converse with each other, get the right information, and also grieve together.”

“We needed that safe space, where we could cry and think ‘maybe they’re still in the hospital,’” says Friday. “We could experience that without being somebody’s reality TV show.”

Soon enough, the narrative of the fire was shifting, away from the loss of thirty-six lives and the safety failures of the Ghost Ship, to this being the logical result of an unchecked “rave” culture. “These partiers chose to have a rave,” was the sentiment. “They deserved what was coming to them by not taking the proper safety precautions.” This led to those many righteous stories from talking heads, grandstanding about a culture they know little about. (Very much related: NBC’s “Chicago Fire” dramatized the tragedy in a February episode entitled “Deathtrap.”)

Eventually, the national media, as it does, went home. They had other stories to cover, beginning with the fallout from the inauguration of Donald Trump. Local media, meanwhile, continued pounding the pavement and hitting up sources, to pretty accurate and worthwhile results; East Bay Express and KQED public radio offered compelling portraits of the deceased, while The East Bay Times won a Pulitzer Prize for their extended coverage.

But the fallout from the mainstream media’s portrait of Ghost Ship persists even now, six months later, with the continuing dismantling of Oakland’s warehouse culture. Due to the extra media presence at that time, each trying to scoop the other to claim “first” on discovering some hidden live/work warehouse space that hadn’t been zoned for such use by the city — always under the guise of “trying to understanding these cultures” — the locations of these spaces were ratted out. “The city of Oakland immediately started cracking down,” said Strauss. “Tons of notices and violations were issued in the week or two after the fire. People got evicted. There were tons of evictions.”

A warehouse space in Oakland’s Jack London Square by the name of Salt Lick is one example. In the days after the Ghost Ship, with the media signal-boosting any lead to fill up air-time, the owners of a barbecue place next door, Everett & Jones, held a press conference to expose the venue in a misguided attempt to, you know, “save them from themselves.” They were heavily criticized for the move by locals. The following week, the artist community and the BBQ joint “broke bread” for a benefit event held at Everett & Jones, with proceeds going to improve warehouse safety. A positive end to this narrative, wrapped up nicely with hugs and handshakes. But in the end, Salt Lick got evicted.

“It was a tragedy, then it became a tragedy on an entirely different spectrum,” said Friday. “The original was the loss of such vibrant, wonderful people. And that was forgotten and it just became about housing ordinances, and this witch hunt of warehouses.”

The hunt continues, not just in Oakland, but around the country. City governments — rather than focusing efforts on bringing warehouses up to code, of empathizing with tenants forced to live in unsafe conditions due to increasing rents and lower wages, hell, even pragmatically understanding the added value these fringe residents add to a city’s cultural cachet — are simply closing down venues, then moving on to close down the next. Two days after Ghost Ship, the tenants of Baltimore’s iconic Bell Foundry were evicted. A week after that, the punk venue Burnt Ramen in Richmond, CA was shut down. On April 27th, eight people living in an artist collective in San Francisco were evicted.

The cities say they don’t want another Ghost Ship, implying they mean another massive loss of life. But the speed at which they’re performing these evictions — and the lack of solutions they’re offering to those displaced — suggests that what they really don’t want is another Ghost Ship media event: vultures descending, camera lights illuminating the dark corners of their own institutional failures.


Yesterday, Derick Almena, who leased the warehouse, and Max Harris, who organized the event, were charged with 36 counts of manslaughter. In a statement, Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf applauded the charges, stating “they send a clear message: you won’t get away with making a profit by cramming people into dangerous spaces or failing to maintain safe living conditions.” No word on how Schaaf will extend that message to the city’s price-gouging landlords who force people to cram into dangerous, yet affordable, living conditions like those at Ghost Ship.

Rick Paulas is writing a novel about Oakland.