Editorial: New Ways to Spread the News

Becky O’Malley
Friday July 30, 2004

In olden times King Midas of Phrygia made the mistake of preferring the music made by the god Pan, playing reed pipes, to that of Apollo on the lyre. Big mistake. Apollo changed Midas’s ears to those of an ass (a comment on his taste, no doubt), so the king was forced to wear his hat pulled down over his ears, and no one knew except his barber, who was sworn to secrecy. After a while the secret got to be too much for the barber, so he went down to the river and whispered it into a hole in the bank to relieve himself. But reeds grew on the spot where the barber had deposited his secret, and as the wind blew through them they whispered the secret again and again: Midas has ass’s ears, Midas has ass’s ears, Midas has ass’s ears. 


It’s getting harder and harder to keep a secret these days. The sudden proliferation of multiple media outlets with technology accessible to “amateurs” and “professionals” of all stripes has created a vast marsh of whispering reeds which are disclosing all kinds of secrets willy-nilly. Little papers like ours can now get copy from far away, along with digital pictures, within minutes after events. And because we’re also on the Internet, we can send it around the world almost as quickly.  

The Democratic Convention is a case in point. Reports say there were only 5,000 delegates, but 15,000 accredited media personnel, another 15,000 accredited hangers-on, and about three dozen bloggers (no one seems to have been able to make the bloggers stand still long enough to count them accurately). Perennial gadfly Medea Benjamin managed to get on the floor, with credentials, to reveal, at least to a limited audience, the Democrats’ biggest unspoken secret: they’re still tiptoeing around the question of the Iraq war. We quickly checked other media on the Internet and didn’t see another picture or report of her escapade, but now it’s on our front page and our website, and can be found in the future by anyone who wants to know about it. (Whether voters care or not is a different question, but that’s up to them.) 

We got a request from a Japanese schoolgirl for a “Berkeley Dairy Planet” t-shirt. One of our writers (based in Indiana) mentioned that it’s impossible to find a copy of Condoleeza Rice’s curriculum vita, and she’s gotten a query on the topic from an academic researcher at a college in Oregon. We ran a favorable review of the latest Harry Potter novel last August, and got a letter in November from a 17-year-old home-schooled Jane Austen fan in the South who took issue with our literary taste.  

Consolidation of major media is still a problem, insofar as media consumers get their news primarily from the big guys. Wolves in sheep’s clothing are a subset of the problem: corporate media masquerading as independents, a la the New Times chain out of Phoenix. New Times has swallowed up many of the small fry: at least two of the formerly alternative weeklies in the Bay Area, including the East Bay Express (which recently ran a shrill and smug cover story trashing author Ben Bagdikian’s classic book on media ownership.) 

We got a press release from a Berkeley company hawking what seems like a very alternative distribution medium: “MobiTV, the only television network for mobile phone users, will carry 14 weeks of news programming featuring Peter Jennings’ anchored coverage of the Democratic and Republican Conventions on…. the first time mobile phone users can watch live political convention news while on the move.” Sounds edgy, all right, but it’s just the same old network news in a new wrapper. 

On the other hand, C-Span, bless them, has been running gavel-to-gavel podium coverage viewable on cable and streamed to a computer near you. If you’ve been tied up during the speeches, and you have the right technology, you can watch them later at your convenience. The real unvarnished convention itself is much more interesting than what the networks wanted us to see, mostly talking airheads: poorly informed newsies and associate professors at second-rate colleges. 

The chart reproduced below shows how fast visits to the Berkeley Daily Planet website have been increasing in the last few months. We haven’t hyped our site very much, since our first love is print. We’re still most thrilled to see readers with the printed Planet on the bus and in cafes and hospital waiting rooms, but we’re also delighted to know that our message is reaching an even wider audience on the Internet. We’re just one of many reeds on the riverbank, but we’re trying to do our part to spread the news. 


—Becky O’Malleyª