Public Comment

A Challenge to an Open, Public, In-Person Discussion

By Richard Fabry
Thursday June 18, 2009 - 07:07:00 PM

I found the Daily Planet’s in-depth coverage (June 4th edition) of the organized campaign to “reform” your newspaper or drive it out of business thought-provoking, disturbing, and a reflection of the conservative and fearful times we live in. 

It got me musing about the reactions I receive when asking people what they think of the Daily Planet. The uphill battle any newspaper faces whose intention is to provide a forum reflecting the views of their community, especially when their readership is outspoken and broadminded. 

The initial responses to my query indicate that the public isn’t used to newspapers with diverse viewpoints. Their gut reaction is embarrassment, confusion, as well as stimulation. It confronts their need to become more knowledgeable so they can ferret out their own truths.  

People are accustomed to mainstream newspapers dominated by commercial interests which fund their advertising. So what you end up with is a news media marinated and more influenced by the commonly accepted ideas of the day than a press which investigates and questions the status quo. 

In part it’s from the “polite” culture we inherited from the British. Most people would rather mingle with those we agree with than get into rip-roaring controversial debates. This contrasts with other cultures such as the French, who constantly check others’ body language to make sure they are artfully engaged and stimulated. 

This timidity in our public discourse confronts our public education system with its rigid curriculums and unrelenting testing, which often emphasizes “right answers” over creative and critical thinking. 


Decline in U.S. news 

The quality of news coverage in the United States has been in decline for several decades. In the 1970s the TV networks realized the news division could bring in a tidy profit, especially if it was watered-down and diluted with “entertainment values.” 

Ted Turner’s 24-hour CNN cable news revolution was initially refreshing before it became swallowed by the conglomerates. Later its format was imitated and simplified to espouse conservative viewpoints by Fox News. Fox’s rating success helped further trivialize the other TV news outlets. The 1987 FCC ruling abolishing the ‘Fairness Doctrine’ helped pave the way for airing one-sided news shows. 

Now we live in a cynical age of punditry, spin, attitude, government and PR hype, rather than of in-depth investigative reporting, thoughtful analysis, or meaningful commentary. 

The internet provides diversity for those who take the time to cobble together their own unique array of news sources. But how many take the time?  


Campaign to coerce and intimidate the Daily Planet 

In this dumbed-down-news-dissemination-climate arrives “The Campaign against the Daily Planet.” It’s inevitable that groups or individuals who ardently advocate a particular point of view would find the Planet threatening. It’s a sign of our apprehensive and acquiescent times that such groups would become buoyed enough to intimidate and suppress an open-minded news outlet in the infamous land of Free Speech. 

This attack on the Planet tests the mettle of those who realize allowing diversity of opinions empowers us to further refine our outlook. It also points out that a news outlet which does not have strings attached ultimately needs to have both the financial and moral support from its readership or it becomes beholden to its advertisers, politicians, institutional powers, as well as groups or individuals with an ax to grind. 

Once you let one faction leverage your content, it emboldens others to follow suit. Before you know it, you have a newspaper so watered down it appeals to no one. 

Israeli politics is not the issue, but rather the public’s right to access an unfettered forum to express and be exposed to a wide array of viewpoints.  

While I can appreciate John Gertz’s passion and initiative for what he advocates to be his truth, as well as his willingness to be openly interviewed by the Planet, his crusade is ultimately one of censoring views he deems politically incorrect. 

The reality is that democracy in all its openness and variety is a messy affair. Our First Amendment guarantees are likewise messy. When you immerse yourself in all the varied opinions human beings have, issues get complex, controversial, stimulating, and threatening.  

In a world whose leaders and experts are all too eager to tell us which solutions are off the table, arming yourself with as much information—including many viewpoints—is no small feat and a healthy antidote to our increasingly numbed-out, frenetic existence. 

In Gertz’s site, his high-minded guise states that the Planet “often does not adhere to the highest standards of journalism.” Which “standards” is he referring to? The commonly accepted “safe” parameters of earning the seal of approval from the local Chamber of Commerce?  


A challenge to an in-person, open, and public discussion 

I challenge John Gertz, PR whiz Jim Sinkinson, Dan Spitzer and other “activists” to take a moment away from their daily routines, websites, and well-honed PR campaigns to participate in person in an open public forum/discussion with the editorial staff of the Berkeley Daily Planet. This would provide an opportunity to air their various concerns and to field questions and comments from the public they so adamantly want to influence. 

Whether or not the primary “activists” choose to participate, I also encourage and welcome spokespersons from local religious and secular Jewish institutions. They could express whether they condone or distance themselves (or both) from those activists’ goals, tactics, and attitudes. These spokespersons could articulate how they reconcile their culture’s hallowed traditions of respecting and encouraging a rich diversity of opinions with their organization’s current political and/or religious beliefs.  

To participate would be educational for all, demonstrate a willingness to openly engage in an unrehearsed give and take, and start to heal a growing schism in our community. 


Richard Fabry, a Berkeley native, currently lives in Point Richmond. He is a former magazine publisher.