Editorial: What Constitutes the Public Forum? By BECKY O'MALLEY

Friday June 24, 2005

Last Sunday Sylvia Paull organized one of her often-stimulating Cybersalon programs at the Hillside Club. She e-mails invitations to a long list of people, offers a buffet supper, and invites panelists to spark a general discussion among her guests. I was asked to be part of a panel called “Got News? Citizen Journalism.” The other guests were Dan Gillmor, who gave up his tech column at the San Jose Mercury News to start his own interactive-journalism venture, www.Bayosphere.com and Peter Merholz, who founded the Beast Blog, a group blog described by Sylvia as covering “everything of note in the East Bay.” Her invitation alluded to the idea that technology was now making grassroots journalism possible. “With organic publications like these, who needs the artificially flavored New York Times?” she said. 

The bottom line I extracted from a long and interesting discussion is that it’s not the technology as much as the content that counts. The significant contribution that has been made by technology in the last 20 years is that the cost of dissemination of information has gone down, and the amount of information has gone up. What’s not so clear is whether the quality of information has improved.  

In my part of the panel I spoke about my strong belief that, all else being equal, print on paper is still the best way to get the news out, and also the best way to discuss the news.  

Free papers speak to everyone, even those who aren’t technologically savvy enough or well-off enough to own a computer. We reach the Berkeley intelligentsia, but also the Berkeley (and East Bay) bus riders (some readers are in both groups).  

By and large, Internet communication, including websites, blogs and e-mail chains, is narrowcasting. It preaches to the already converted, which is not a bad thing, but different from a newspaper of general circulation. Ideally, the opinion columns of newspapers allow a frank and free exchange of views among people who disagree. 

This is a good place for a digression explaining the kind of content you see in the Berkeley Daily Planet, for those who might be confused. First, the news itself is on the front page, and several of the inside pages. It’s written by professional reporters, who are charged with making sure that their stories offer not just both sides but many voices when there’s a controversy. Our regular columnists, Jesse Allen-Taylor (who is also a regular reporter), Susan Parker and P.M. Price, are charged with parsing the local world from their own personal points of view. Our “Public Eye” columnists, Bob Burnett and Zelda Bronstein, are in a category seldom found in the commercial press these days. They’re active, engaged citizens who also happen to be good writers, who have been asked to comment regularly on the political process from an insider’s vantage point. Letters (under 500 words) and commentaries (over 600 words) are strictly the opinions of the authors, not of the Planet. But some of our most intriguing news appears first on the opinion pages. 

My “editorial” is non-traditional, more of a column than the kind of Olympian pronunciamento found in most papers today. In general, when I say “I” in this space, it’s personal; when I say “we” there’s a good chance that the publisher and the other editors agree with me. 

Recently both the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times have announced that they’re experimenting with allowing more voices to be represented in the opinion section and even on the sacred editorial pages. That would be a welcome return to policies of earlier days in American journalism, more like what’s found in the livelier European papers like The Guardian. 

But newspapers only work as sponsors of the public forum if they’re open to all points of view. In today’s paper we are fortunate to have some good examples of what our goal is. First, we have an old friend drawing a bead on one of our Public Eye columnists. Readers can judge for themselves who comes out better in the crossfire, and they can add their own comments for next time. Now, this kind of exchange also takes place on the Internet. What is different about our correspondents, and I’m not really sure why, is that they take the time to write carefully and clearly, unlike many online correspondents.  

Next, we reprint a letter from a famously pungent published author which the Chronicle has not seen fit to print. These days big corporate papers limit letters to sound-byte length, and choose the less inflammatory writers much of the time. Some people, like this letter writer, even suspect them of screening out the ones which deviate from the paper’s own politics. Here at the Planet, we print almost everything we get from local readers, except letters which are unintelligible or which attack private individuals. 

Does a lively public forum influence public process? Perhaps eventually. Support for the Iraq invasion is finally down in national polls, as is state-wide support for Schwarzenegger’s lame-brained initiatives. Even the Albany mega-mall proposal, despite hiring well-wired political consultants, is going down in a local poll.  

Of course the influence of the media on politicians depends on partly on whether politicians are consumers of information or not. Bush and Schwarzenegger seem to be well-insulated from the public voice.  

And so are some local pols. A sharp-eared reader forwarded to us this transcription from Tuesday’s public hearing on the Berkeley budget:  

“Speaker No. 41 in the public hearing on the budget said: ‘What got me here today is that I picked up a copy of the Daily Planet and read a letter laying out the argument in favor of not cutting the animal control officer in the Animal Shelter.’ She didn’t dwell on the Planet. She just said that in passing. She asked other people ‘with signs’ if the writer of the letter was present, and she was—in fact, she was the next speaker. 

“After she’d finished, and before the next person could speak, [Mayor Tom] Bates said: ‘I don’t read that paper.’ [laughter] ‘I’m sorry. You’ll have to get in a real newspaper if you want me to read it.’ [laughter from the dais, much booing and hissing from the audience].” 

A real newspaper wouldn’t be, for example, the Daily Californian, now would it? Unless, perhaps, Bates did manage to read that one before he tossed a thousand copies in the trash during his last campaign. But don’t count on it. He’s not much of a reader, it seems. And proud of it, too.