Undercurrents: The Bay Area’s Lack of Local Day-to-Day Media Reporting

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Thursday June 19, 2008 - 10:01:00 AM

One of the great ironies of these times—something historians in our grandchildren’s time will probably better be able to understand and explain—is that we are experiencing an explosion of information and internet discussion concerning local events while simultaneously seeing a drying up of direct news media reporting on those events.  

The Berkeley Daily Planet, bless our hearts, has two reporters covering Berkeley city government, and another to cover the Berkeley Unified School District and the various dealings of the Berkeley School Board. But that is a rarity. Across the border in Oakland, no media outlet—aside from the East Bay News Service’s Sanjiv Handa—regularly covers Oakland City Council or Oakland city government, no media outlet at all regularly covers the Oakland Unified School District, or the Peralta Community College District, or the Alameda-Contra Contra Costa Transit District, and so on, and so on. Reporters are sent out to these entities only when there is the chance that news is being made. Unfortunately, that gives both a skewed view of the activities of local governmental bodies as well as causes media misinterpretations as reporters and editors—on the fly—try to catch up with the impact and meaning of actions and events, without the context that comes from regular observation. 

One of the problems is that because media outlets rely less and less on direct reporting, they rely more and more on picking up information—or misinformation—from other media outlets who are relying less and less on direct reporting. The results often make their way into the blogsphere as well as into general conversation and the murky area of “general knowledge,” becoming running narratives that everyone seems to know about and accept as fact, but—like the ants found nesting in your kitchen cupboards after a hard rain—can be traced back to their actual source with great difficulty, and seem to have sprung from up out of the very ground itself, parentless. 

Thus, in a June 4 entry in the East Bay Express’ 92510 blog summing up the results of the primary election held the day before, we see an odd description of Oakland City Council At Large runner up Kerry Hamill, who “contributor” Chris Thompson describes as “surprisingly independent.” The description is odd because there is nothing else in the paragraph-long item to explain it, other than, possibly, a notation that Ms. Hamill is a “protégé” of District 9 State Senator Don Perata. Surprisingly independent of whom? Mr. Perata? Mr. Thompson’s blog item fails to explain. 

In fact, the description appears to go back to a May 28 East Bay Express article, written by our good friend, Bob Gammon, which lays out the newspaper’s endorsements for the then-upcoming election. Concerning the At Large Oakland City Council race, Mr. Gammon writes that the Express “likes” Hamill “because she has an independent streak, despite her continued ties to her former boss, Perata. For example, we thought Hamill was right—and courageous—to support the proposed sale of the Oakland school district headquarters for $65 million back in 2006.” 

Regular UnderCurrents readers know of my respect for Mr. Gammon and his reporting, and I have often pointed to his work in uncovering the extensive 2003 phone contacts between FCMAT, Mr. Perata, and former Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown as helping provide our best understanding of how, and why, Oakland’s schools got seized by the state of California. But Mr. Gammon did not regularly cover the Oakland School Board deliberations during the 2006 deliberations over the proposed sale of the downtown properties, and his characterization of Ms. Hamill’s role in those deliberations is simplistic and wrong. Implicit in his description is that the rest of the school board—along with much of the general public and almost every other major elected Oakland official—were against the downtown property sale while Ms. Hamill was for it. Things were far more complicated than that. 

Many have argued—myself being one of them—that Mr. Perata engineered the Oakland school takeover in large part in order to sell, to developers of his choice, the eight acres of prime Lake Merritt Channel lands on which the OUSD headquarters and five schools now stand. But after the state takeover, so the theory goes, California School Superintendent Jack O’Connell double-crossed Mr. Perata, negotiating with developers of his choice rather than the ones Mr. Perata preferred. Thus, while a great and overwhelming coalition developed in Oakland two years ago against the particular deal Mr. O’Connell was brokering with New York developers TerraMark, some joined it not because they didn’t want the property sold to developers, but only because they wanted the deal to go to someone else. 

In the middle of these complications, Ms. Hamill took a very consistent—but understandably complicated—position. She thought that Mr. O’Connell’s proposed deal with TerraMark was a bad deal, and opposed it. But she argued that with the district in ongoing financial trouble, the sale of the administrative building made good economic sense. She felt that the Paul Robeson Building should be stripped away from the adjacent education properties—the five schools--and considered for a separate deal. 

But far from this being a unique position, it was shared in part at the time by several other board members. Gary Yee told me in 2006 that he was opposed to the sale of the administration building at that time primarily because it was being done by the state rather than by the local board and without local citizen input or consideration of the needs of the district, and that no one should rule out the board taking up discussion of the administration building sale once local control was returned. (Mr. Yee’s position has probably changed, now that the board has gone on record in support of the construction of an education complex—including a new administrative building—for the entire Lake Merritt Channel property). And Board President David Kakishiba said repeatedly that even under state control, the district should be considering the sale of surplus administrative property—though not the administrative headquarters—in order to pay down the state debt. 

Did Ms. Hamill take marching orders on the school property sale from Mr. Perata, for whom she once worked as chief of staff? Even though her position on the property sale was identical to the prevailing theory about Mr. Perata’s position, there’s no evidence that Ms. Hamill did anything that was against her own beliefs or political or economic principles. It was a position that was consistent and defensible, and that some might describe as responsible (although that makes it sound as if the people opposing the entire land sale were irresponsible, which would be unfair; there just appears to have been an honest difference of opinion all around, something that is common in the democracy that is Oakland). On the other hand, Ms. Hamill’s stand on the proposed OUSD land sale was hardly a position that was “independent,” remarkably or otherwise, as Mr. Gammon initially described it, or Mr. Thompson later repeated. And given all the surrounding circumstances, it is difficult to see how Ms. Hamill’s position on the OUSD land sale was “courageous.” 

But out of such cloth are urban legends woven. 

Of course, reading Mr. Thompson’s recent offerings to the Express reveal something of a consistency of their own. Some years ago, when he was on the staff of the Express as a reporter, Mr. Thompson did actual reporting, most notably one of the first—if not the first—in-depth exposé’s of Dr. Yusef Bey’s Your Black Muslim Bakery. Immediately after the local buyout of the Express a year or so ago, Mr. Thompson left the paper and moved to New York to work for the Village Voice, the flagship paper of the media corporation that had owned the Express for a bit. After a little while, his name dropped off the list of Village Voice staffmembers, however, and his stories stopped appearing. Instead, he began writing again for the Express, this time in the print paper as the “Seven Days” columnist and daily 92510 blogger, his name appearing on the paper’s contact list as a “contributor” rather than as a “staff writer,” as it had when he previously worked for them. 

But while Mr. Thompson’s past Express writings reflected on-the-scene reporting, his most recent blog postings and column entries do not. Most bloggers pull from mainstream media sources, but intersperse those entries with personal observations and other items showing that they attended events or talked directly to participants. No such information is present in the entries during Mr. Thompson’s newest incarnation as an Express “contributor,” and a review of his postings and print writings appears as if the writer was simply doing a daily web search of East Bay items, selecting the most appropriate ones and then repeating them, in condensed form, with personal witticisms included, but no insights. It’s something that anyone with a reasonable knowledge of East Bay politics could do without ever having to actually set foot in the East Bay to do it, emailing in items from a home in Iowa or, say, New York. Even our other good friend colleague, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Chip Johnson—who sometimes seems to let independent research and reporting take a back seat to other considerations—includes evidence in his columns that he’s holding local conversations. 

Or maybe I’m just being too hard on a journalistic colleague. If so, sorry. I’ll try to do better. If I see Mr. Thompson at a City Council or School Board meeting somewhere, I’ll be sure to apologize to him, directly. And if you see him around and about the area, be sure to let him know.