Editorial: Let’s Talk About What the Media Can Do

By Becky O’Malley
Tuesday August 07, 2007

“...you wrote in your hit piece on me that you do sort your socks. That’s strange: Disorder is OK outdoors but not in? Sounds like symptoms of a closet conservative to me.....Let me digress by immodestly pointing out that, unlike for you, the challenges of broadcast programs like this one are not theoretical for me. I literally wrote the book on this subject....Unlike your newspaper which has only one point of view, my radio show serves the entire community and all points of view.....Consider this an invitation to join me one day soon on my radio show. You’ll find an environment shockingly different from the pages of your paper: a place where all points of view are truly welcome.”  

—Peter Laufer, July 26 e-mail 


“I still can hardly fathom that he meant that essay to be taken seriously. I mean, you could teach half a semester on rhetoric from that one document alone, and a good portion of a psychology class, too.” 

—from a friend, July 28 (?) e-mail. 


Well, first a confession. I didn’t tell the whole truth: Laufer caught me with my socks down, as it were. What I like about radio, as compared to television, reading or even web-surfing, is that it offers busy women like me the chance to multitask, which most of us need to do most of the time, even at 10 o’clock on a Sunday morning. But—and here’s the honest truth—when I listened to Laufer’s program on KPFA I was actually lounging around on my bed considering sorting socks. Yes, I do sometimes have to sort my socks, though not nearly as often as I should. The publisher buys socks in gross lots, all black and all the same, so he doesn’t have to sort his, but while most of my socks are black, I confess to having a few red ones and even a couple of purple ones too. I’m not exactly a fashion plate, but you do lose street cred if you show up wearing one black sock and one purple one. Now, it’s possible just to grab socks from the unsorted drawer, but in theory (though this is not theoretical for me) if you pre-sort your socks you can get out the door faster in the morning.  

But enough about socks—Jon Carroll wrote the definitive piece on socks a few weeks ago, and there’s not much I can add to the master’s work. I do have a few more words on the subject of domestic disorder, however. Suffice it to say that the accusation that I’m a closet neat freak provided my friends and family, especially my mother, with hours of hilarity. I didn’t write the book on creative untidiness, but I could, easily. 

And I have a bit more to say on the serious charges in Laufer’s opus. Regular readers of this paper, especially its opinion pages, know that saying the Planet prints only one point of view is just about as laughable as accusing me personally of excessive sock sorting. It’s so silly that belaboring it is a waste of valuable newsprint. 

What readers might not know is that my familiarity with “the challenges of broadcast programs” is not completely theoretical. When I first moved to Berkeley in 1973 and was looking for interesting work, I took part in a collective program on KPFA which I think was called “Women’s News,” though it might have been something else, but which had a distinctive feminist flavor. There I learned practical-then though now-obsolete skills like tape-splicing. One of our goals was to train women for radio to remedy the gender imbalance which existed in broadcasting at that time.  

A couple of years later, when I was working at Pacific News Service, I was one of the regular panelists on a KPFA show called “Holes in the News,” a weekly review of the print media organized by the legendary Elsa Knight Thompson, the American who became the first woman news broadcaster on the BBC during World War II. My fellow panelists were Sandy Close, who’s since founded New America Media, and (I think, among others) Larry Bensky. Among my colleagues at PNS, which had a radio service in those days, were Renee Montagne, now anchor of National Public Radio’s morning show, and Frank Browning, who now broadcasts from Paris for NPR. As far as more recent talk radio is concerned, I’ve been a guest on KQED’s Forum a couple of times and done an op-ed or two for them, I’ve been on KPFA once in a while, and most recently I was on KGO on the Ron Owens show. Though I haven’t done all that much in the medium myself lately, I’ve seen enough good radio being made that my opinions should be taken seriously.  

But the few paragraphs in my recent editorial criticizing Laufer’s show with Mayor Tom Bates didn’t rise to the level of a hit piece, though they may have stung. Believe me, if I actually did a hit piece, you’d know the difference. In my immoderate youth as a political activist, before I took up journalism, I wrote a few genuine hit pieces which almost got me run out of town. This editorial was intended as constructive criticism, nothing more, as the listeners who wrote to the paper about it seem to have understood. 

Laufer seems to be getting the point too: 


“Please consider this a formal invitation to join me on the air on my KPFA current affairs show Sunday, August 12, at a few minutes past 9 in the morning. We can take advantage of the opportunity to discuss the challenges facing Berkeley and world, along with the role we in the media play in the public debate. ..” 

—Peter Laufer, July 31 e-mail. 


Now that’s more like it. In my 50 or so years of participating in the public debate, I’ve at various times made news, reported on news, and consumed news. This has given me plenty of opportunity to reflect on what role the media can and should play, so I look forward to the discussion on Sunday. 

On a more somber note, all of us at the Planet have been saddened by the death of our colleague, Oakland Post Editor Chauncey Bailey, a brave man who told the truth as he saw it wherever he was. It appears that his murder is part and parcel of the continuing tragedy of urban America, where any 19-year-old fool can get ahold of a gun and re-enact the bloody dramas he’s undoubtedly seen in the media since he was a baby. One topic I’d like to discuss somewhere, sometime, perhaps even on Laufer’s show on Sunday, is what role the media play in glorifying violence in the eyes of young people. It’s not the only cause of the epidemic of killing which has polluted our cities, but it’s one of the causes, and we need to address it.