Blogbeat: Civic Sustainability: Scouring the Web for interesting tidbits

By Thomas Lord
Tuesday June 29, 2010 - 01:48:00 PM

This week’s items: An online twist to OPD’s riot preparations; shootings at funerals and memorials; school bond fails in Alameda: heads up Berkeley?; a correction to last week’s column


Is No News Good News?


Once upon a time it was one of the main functions of news to report to citizens about the actions of their government.   Today, that situation may be reversing: “news” taking on the function of reporting about citizens to their government.    Some background and then a case in point:


News reporting in Berkeley and Alameda County generally has suffered badly in recent years as papers fail or cut back.   The long story made short: there are far fewer reporters out there actually digging up the news, and fewer widely read outlets for delivering that news.


Many have argued that citizen journalism and the blogosphere and social networks will replace the newsroom, perhaps even prove to be superior.   It’s a nice theory but if you look at the attempts to realize it in Berkeley you’ll get the impression that the main news in town is restaurant and theater reviews and friendly interviews with local celebrities.   Will you find a detailed, fact based analysis of Berkeley’s budget woes?   Careful examinations of governance, budget, and bond issues affecting the school system? Not so much.


Without the scrutiny of the press, our civic leaders and our government are free to work indifferently to the will of the people from whom their authority is legitimately derived.   Thomas Jefferson said something along those lines, many times.


Even more slippery is that, these days, “news” is changing meaning.   To users of Facebook, for example, the news (what they call a “newsfeed”) is naught but the latest whimsical comments posted by officially registered “friends”.


As we chat distractedly on the social networks, creating so-called “news” for one another, the civic role of news is being flipped around.    Whereas once, news reported government to us, now we report ourselves to government.   Somewhat ironically, the point is driven home by a recent article from the Oakland Tribune


Police are also monitoring fliers, notices and social networking websites, including Twitter and Facebook, in an attempt to gain early notice of mass gatherings or public events.”


As a law enforcement tactic, assuming the monitoring is conducted lawfully, that the laws in question are just and supported by the people, and that the tactic is effective in mediating violence then perhaps that is good policing.


It’s worth noting, though, that under the heading “news” we’re eagerly substituting government surveillance of citizens for citizen surveillance of government.   Jefferson: “The only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure.”   Apparently, we’re entering an era of putting that theory to the test.


Reporting Vs. The General Sentiment


The force of public opinion does not disappear only because good, in-depth, fact-based reporting is gone.   People still bicker in the public square even when that square is a virtual square that exists only on-line.   Community leaders still emerge to take their place at meetings between government and the community.   Those opinions we form in what passes for news on the blogosphere can still wind up shaping the policies of government, even if those opinions lack any solid foundation.   Here is an example that I worry about:


As many readers likely know, June 23 brought us yet another shooting death in Oakland. Rachael Green, who was all of 19, was slain at a candlelight vigil held for another victim, Damon Williams (17), who was shot but two days prior.   A street side makeshift memorial was associated with the vigil.


The local blog hosted a discussion initially about a different shooting. That discussion turned to the question of whether or not police ought not crack down more aggressively on makeshift memorials (aka street shrines). Disclaimer: I was a participant in this discussion.


A few voices, including one famous and accomplished community leader, advocated strongly for enforcement against street shrines. The discussion (which degenerated, rapidly) began with a comment from Laura Menard: “However most of us were less than satisfied with the answers we got last night from all the public officials about the gang displacement, the city deciding to not enforce the memorial policy, police staffing levels, and budgeting.” (emphasis added; see this ).


Are the memorials really the problem? Is enforcing against them an effective use of police resources? In that conversation it proved nearly impossible to bring those questions to the fore.   A journalistic report, even though brief, suggests that they are important questions.    The BayCitizen report by Shoshana Walter suggests otherwise (see). “It’s a macabre trend: In Oakland and Richmond, young gunmen are targeting funerals and memorial services to attack friends and relatives of slain victims, the police and community leaders say.”   Her article does mention the killing of Rachael Green but also several other retributive shootings that took place at funerals, not street shrines.   If this is any indication, perhaps it is not the form of mourning or even the act of morning that is the problem.


While on the one hand our substitutes for actual news give government a better opportunity to watch us than for us to watch government, on the other hand, when we read what today passes as news and form opinions – we lack the information to form sound opinions.   Jefferson’s “force of public opinion [which can not be] resisted” blows with the wind of rumor and innuendo.


Heads Up BUSD


Jefferson waxed eloquent about the value of the press but we ought not overlook something else he said in the same breath: “The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.” (emphasis added).  


If it is important to deliver independent and well developed news to the people, it is no less important that they should be able to read and understand it.   As our newspapers are failing, so too our schools.


It is widely reported that a large ballot measure to sure up Berkeley schools is coming to the ballot in November.   Is this an effective strategy?   Perhaps of some concern is the recent failure of a similar measure in Alameda.   BayCitizen reports: “And in the somber moments that followed the announcement of the preliminary vote, the board okayed agreements with two unions to furlough staff and teachers.”


The web site “The Island” - a rare, promising adventure in online journalism – has a fuller account of the grim details. (See )


Slowing Down the PACE


Beyond an educated an informed citizenry, our civic order depends on a strong, opportunity rich economy and, as we increasingly see, on sound energy and environmental policies. In those areas, Berkeley was seen as a leader with PACE.   In Berkeley, the initial PACE experiment allowed homeowners to borrow money for solar installations, billing loan repayments as increases in property taxations to those properties.   The notion was that the program would be self funding and that homeowners would quickly enjoy savings on their energy bills.


Now there is a snag. As reported on, a blog focussed on environmental news, Freddie Mac recently sent out a warning to lenders that their borrowers may not be entitled to receive PACE money because it would create a lien on the property that is superior (gets paid ahead of, if only one can be paid) to the outstanding mortgage.   Environmentalists are scratching their heads and waiting for further clarification about the letter but tentatively conclude that it would exclude roughly half of all mortgaged homes from PACE programs.


Can We Keep This Up?


This has been a dismal column to write: the failure of any pretense of a well informed community, the rise of government surveillance in lieu of news, the inflaming of rumor and innuendo as the basis of public influence over government policy, further evidence of the failure of our schools, and even our best intentioned economic development and environmental sustainability projects called into question. Its grim from top to bottom.


There’s an old joke in the news business, I hear: “If it bleeds it leads,” - dark news “sells” better. It doesn’t sit well with me to leave it at that, though, and so next week, knock on wood, I’ll look for good and encouraging news.


Do be in touch: you can write me at


But before you go, I must make a correction from last week!


BP Did NOT Fund Biofuel Breakthrough


Last week I reported on an incremental but potentially quite nice advance in synthetic biology that can help lead to replacing fossil fuels with biofuels on a massive scale.   I reported that this research at JBEI had been funded by BP.   This was not correct, although it wasn’t entirely misleading either. Here’s the scoop:


In response to the article I received a polite note from Mr. Lynn Yarris, a Senior Science Writer for Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.   He kindly indicated that my science writing wasn’t too shabby but asked me to correct:


JBEI is not funded by BP – it is funded mainly by a grant from the federal Department of Energy.


I had apparently confused, he pointed out, JBEI with BP-funded EBI.


I stand corrected and apologize for getting that wrong.


That said, academic funding mechanisms and modes of organization are a peculiar thing.   JBEI and EBI were created around the same time and in a coordinated fashion.    As the Berkeley Daily Planet reported in 2007 “While the project is separate from the $500 million Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) funded earlier this year by BP (the company once called British Petroleum), the newly funded Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) features many of the same scientific players—and both are headed by Jay Keasling, a chemical engineering professor and entrepreneur. “


The research focus areas of EBI and JBEI are, by design, complementary according to a “PowerPoint Presentation” by Chris Somerville of EBI. . One important reason to keep the accounting books of EBI and JBEI separate, as the same presentation indicates, is that BP has intellectual property rights to some of EBI’s work, but not JBEI’s.


My surmise is that I did err in describing the JBEI research as BP funded but would not be wrong to say it would not likely exist in its present form were it not for the presence of closely related BP money.


Nevertheless, the BP tie-in was not central to my points in that column and I’m happy to make the correction.