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No Bad News! No Bad News!

Becky O’Malley
Tuesday September 23, 2003

A few years ago I saw a terrific production of “The Wiz” at Berkeley High. One of the best characters in this update of “The Wizard of Oz” is the Wicked Witch of the West, Evillene. Her signature refrain is: “Don’t nobody bring me no bad news!”  

Recent emanations from Berkeley High remind me of this production. Two papers, the Berkeley Daily Planet and the Oakland Tribune, made conscientious efforts to find out exactly why new B.H.S. Principal James Slemp canceled a football game with Oakland Tech. Our reporter had a lot of trouble getting information from anyone in the Berkeley Unified School District except BUSD’s PR guy, Mark Coplan, so he went to his sources in Oakland, where he’s lived and worked for many years, to report the story from the Oakland perspective. The day the story appeared in the Planet and the Tribune, Coplan posted this e-mail message on an email tree maintained by parents of Berkeley students: 

"The cancellation of the Berkeley High - Oakland Technical High School football game was covered in the local papers today (Friday Sept. 12). Because of the dissimilarity in their reports, I direct you to the coverage in the Berkeley Voice for the more accurate version." 

The Planet takes our reputation for accuracy seriously, so we immediately responded to the posting with a request that Mr. Coplan specify exactly what in our coverage he found inaccurate. We have still not received a reply from Mr. Coplan. We sent School Board Vice-President John Selawsky a copy of our request, and his comments are on the facing page.  

First, yes, the headline writer (not the reporter) did make the mistake of assuming that the School Board had approved the game cancellation—not an unreasonable assumption, but incorrect. But Mr. Selawsky offers no specifics to back up these vague charges: 

“Inaccuracies and speculation abound in the article; very little actual information is offered. I'm disappointed in the low level reportage of this story, the inaccuracies it includes, the omissions it does not, and the harm such inaccurate reportage does to our district and community.” 

What inaccuracies is he talking about? The hard facts in the Planet’s article were substantially the same as the facts in the Tribune. Both papers made an effort to go further than the very sketchy details provided by the BUSD public relations officer. Both were forced to rely on Oakland sources because they couldn’t get information in Berkeley. (The Voice, presumably, earned BUSD’s accolade by sticking to BUSD press releases.) If the Berkeley District, even now in retrospect, would like to provide specific and accurate information about why the game was canceled, I’m sure both papers would be delighted to print it. We agree with Mr. Selawsky that inadequate information harms the community. 

Why is this important? Because we, as citizens, parents and administrators, do have a responsibility to use all reasonable precautions to ensure the safety of our schoolchildren. On the other hand, it is very harmful to our young people for us to make decisions based on vague, unspoken rumors of possible danger from unnamed shadowy persons. Such conclusions, if undocumented, could be the local equivalent of Bush and Blair’s speeches about WMDs. Kids these days have plenty of real problems to worry about, and adults don’t help them by appearing to panic.  

School district administrators and school board members should remember the story of Chicken Little, which belongs in every first grade classroom, and not be too quick to say that the sky is falling. They should remember the old story of the shepherd boy who cried once too often that a wolf was threatening his flock, so that he wasn’t believed when the wolf actually came.  

The best efforts of reporters at two local papers have still produced almost no specifics about what information prompted Slemp to call off the game, and not much about where he got it. Was he worried about student-to-student violence? Between team members or spectators? Or was it outsiders, adults or teens? Gang-related or not? Did Slemp fear an invasion of marauders from Oakland, or from another city? Why couldn’t the Berkeley Police department handle such a situation? (They provided a large contingent of officers at the Solano Stroll, enough to handle almost anything short of an army in tanks.) If the police can’t deal with high school football games, what will happen the next time there’s a big pop concert at the Berkeley Community Theater, also on the Berkeley High campus?  

Questions like these deserve answers, from both administrators and school board members. As a community, we need to separate scary rumors from proven threats, and to know if our police department can’t cope with such threats if they’re real and might recur in the future. 

This is not the first time the Berkeley Unified School District has been less than candid. Our Planet predecessors won an award for uncovering school board meetings which violated the Brown Act. One of their reporters uncovered an unpublicized agreement to axe the African-American studies department at Berkeley High. Neighbors are now suing the district for failing to comply with California Environmental Quality Act disclosure requirements for proposed projects on school sites. City Manager Weldon Rucker (whose wife is a former school board member) sent a pointed letter asking for a full environmental impact report on these projects. It was ignored. 

The Berkeley Unified School District needs to start taking responsibility for making sure that citizens get the facts, and get them promptly. The Planet will report on whatever we can find out about. We will also report on what we should know about, but don’t. Even if that’s bad news for board members and public information officers…. 

I used Google on the Internet to verify Evillene’s exact quote, and found it, among other places, in a sermon posted by the Rev. Frank Logue, a rector in a small town in Georgia. He chided his congregation for wanting only cheery sermons using this analogy: 

“Small town local newspapers are known to be like sundials, they only work in the sunny hours and so are filled with good news. But, even our local Tribune and Georgian too often has to report bad news.” 

The Daily Planet, though a small town local newspaper, aims to be more than a sundial. Whether the BUSD likes it or not, sometimes we have to report the bad news.  

Full disclosure: Executive Editor Becky O’Malley’s three daughters graduated from Berkeley High, and her daughter Eliza O’Malley was musical director for “The Wiz.”