Our lively and well-read local Berkeley newspaper, the Berkeley Daily Planet, and its eminences grises, the O’Malleys, are apparently under sustained assault by some city politicians and officials who do not like their attitude and who neither understand nor respect the role of a free press. Newsracks and newspaper copies have mysteriously disappeared, city public noticing has been pulled, certain insider local businesses have pulled advertising (or decline to advertise in the first place), and there is extensive and inappropriate badmouthing of the paper and its management.
Is our press once again being stolen and recycled, as happened in the 2002 mayoral election with the Daily Cal? Are the current events a more subtle version of this prior regrettable but actual, factual incident?
We live in an era of incredible information flow. There is a plethora of news sources and opinions—Internet newspapers and blogs, e-mail, websites, talk radio, teleconferencing, cellphones, cable coverage, videostreaming, traditional print media and journals, and probably many other venues that I have not yet discovered. Interested members of the public are now able to hear many voices and opinions and make up their own minds, and spreaders of information and misinformation, including government and politicians, are likely to encounter immediate response and argument. This is our information world and those of who are in public life had better get used to it.
In my opinion, the Planet has provided an incredible public service to Berkeley residents in a professional, lively, and up-to-date manner. Yes, the owners/editors have their opinions, but they have every right to print them in their editorials. Yes, there are a lot of critical and carping signed opinion pieces and letters by civic activists, but so what? If members and supporters of the current civic establishment have something to say, they too are free to write opinion pieces and letters and have them published in the Planet. And yes, there are signed news stories with lively headlines that pretty accurately report on the issues and voices heard at public meetings. I have not yet heard of any instance where an “establishment” article or letter or news “correction” was turned down by a biased Planet staff. Is it possible that the those who are now running Berkeley have nothing (more) to say, or are afraid of putting their thoughts out in black and white in the Planet for all to see and respond to? Or do they already have a built-in spin machine, paid for by us taxpayers, and taking the form of press releases, city-sponsored websites, city-sponsored newsletters, city-sponsored public meetings, City Council meetings, and so on?
I know that our politicians and city officials mostly believe that they are doing the best that they possibly can and making the best possible decisions on the basis of the best possible facts. They still need to hear from the public and the press, who sometimes know and think things that officialdom does not. I know that Berkeley issues are tough and serious, but this is exactly why a free press and many public opinions are so important. I know that it is hard for public officials to be criticized, corrected, and satirized, but that is in the nature of our lively information system and democracy.
So, my plea to local officialdom and its supporters is to cease attacking the messengers, listen more closely to the messages, and engage more fully and honestly in the dialogue about vital local issues. With respect to the Berkeley Daily Planet in particular, instead of trying to discredit and undermine it, please join its lively exchanges and give us all more opportunity to engage in thoughtful discussion.
Barbara Gilbert is a Berkeley civic activist who is grateful to live in a free society with a free press and without fear of a Gulag for her opinions.