Bohumil Vostal, a correspondent for a Czech public television station, spent Sunday reporting on the best parts of San Francisco. He toured an art gallery, visited Chinatown and even hired a guide with a vintage Volkswagen bus to drive him to the Golden Gate Bridge.
He intended to end his segment that sunny afternoon in front of City Lights Bookstore, an indie shop and publishing house that helped start the beat poetry movement.
But that’s when San Francisco’s dark side came into full view. Suddenly, Mr. Vostal found himself victimized in the exact high-profile way that city leaders had hoped to avoid during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference this week that is drawing President Biden, other world leaders and legions of international journalists.
On a sidewalk across the street from the bookstore, assailants in ski masks rushed at Mr. Vostal and a cameraman. The attackers pointed guns at Mr. Vostal’s head and the cameraman’s stomach and ordered them to not cause any problems, Mr. Vostal recounted.
The thieves grabbed $18,000 worth of equipment, including a camera, lights and a tripod, and jumped into a getaway car as a stunned Mr. Vostal futilely tried to memorize its license plate.
“They took my research, my time, my ideas,” Mr. Vostal said, distraught that he lost all of his footage. “That is why I’m angry, you know?”
It wasn’t the APEC story line that San Francisco leaders wanted when they furiously cleaned the city and filled the streets with more law enforcement.
Nor was it what they wanted when they built a media hospitality campaign to show visiting journalists the positive sides of San Francisco, whose reputation has plummeted since the beginning of the pandemic.
City leaders have a media center adjacent to the APEC confab that is stocked with city swag and features appearances by local celebrities including the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus and Lou Seal, the mascot of the San Francisco Giants. They are also offering free sightseeing jaunts to journalists, including boat rides on the bay, tours of museum exhibits and behind-the-scenes excursions to the Chase Center, where the Golden State Warriors play.
The tour of the top floor of Salesforce Tower, the tallest building in San Francisco with sweeping views of the bay, is said to be the hottest ticket of them all.
If the media campaign seems a bit overboard, it’s because San Francisco has much to overcome. Foreign journalists have seen the same dystopian headlines and social media videos of public drug use, homelessness and car break-ins that Americans have viewed.
Yuki Ishii with Fuji Television Network in Japan picked up her media credential at the Grand Hyatt hotel just after arriving on Monday. She said she had heard a lot about San Francisco and expected the worst.
“We were thinking there might be zombies,” Ms. Ishii said without a hint of humor. “So far, so good.”
Near City Hall, Ilmari Reunamaki, a television reporter from Finland, said he was trying to show the city in “a fair way,” but wasn’t sure how accurate a depiction he was getting. His crew was recording a segment in United Nations Plaza, which recently got a makeover with a skateboard park and an outdoor cafe with pingpong tables.
“We heard there are usually five times as many tents and now there are five times as many cops,” he said.
Joyce Tseng, a television reporter from TaiwanPlus, said on Tuesday that she found San Francisco cleaner and busier than when she visited a friend here in January. Her friends and family were nervous about her current trip, she said, and warned her not to walk alone at night, particularly because she is a woman.
“I told them: ‘This is for APEC! All the world leaders are coming!’” she recounted. “But still, they were concerned.”
Mr. Vostal, the Czech reporter, suffered the same attack that other media crews have faced in the Bay Area in recent years. They are often vulnerable because they stand in public with thousands of dollars of equipment on them.
The incidents have become frequent enough that Bay Area television stations regularly send their journalists on assignment with private security. In a particularly tragic case almost two years ago, Kevin Nishita, a former police officer working as a security guard, was shot and killed in Oakland while trying to protect a television crew from being robbed.
The journalists were there to cover an earlier robbery.
San Franciscans have tried to make up for Mr. Vostal’s loss this week with an outpouring of compassion.
After Mr. Vostal and his cameraman gave their account to the police, they went to the Irish Bank, a bar near their hotel, for a much-needed beer. The bartender and other patrons, upon hearing the story, treated the Czech duo to multiple rounds, gave them hugs and asked them to come back to San Francisco someday.
On Monday, the two journalists went to City Hall to film an interview with Mayor London Breed, using a backup, smaller camera they still had and lights that had been donated by a local television station. She assured them that the police were working hard to find the culprits.
“I don’t know when, but we will return,” Mr. Vostal pledged. “And we will produce very nice reports about San Francisco.”