What's the News Today, and Why?

By Becky O'Malley
Wednesday September 21, 2011 - 02:26:00 PM

The eternal paradox about what is commonly called journalism is why so many people who commit it manage not to see what’s going on before their eyes, even as a reasonable number of others, in and out of journalism, do.

Ever wonder about what’s happening in the global economy? Well, here it is, a summary which could fit on the back of an envelope, and it’s even perversely funny:

“Quarterly GDP data don’t, on the whole, tend to make the person studying them laugh out loud. The most recent set, however, are an exception, despite the fact that the general picture is of unrelieved and spreading economic gloom. Instead of the surge of rebounding growth which historically accompanies successful exit from a recession, we have the UK’s disappointing 0.2 per cent growth, the US’s anaemic 0.3 per cent and the glum eurozone average figure of 0.2 per cent. That number includes the surprising and alarming German 0.1 per cent, the desperately poor French 0 per cent and then, wait for it, the agreeably frisky Belgian 0.7 per cent. Why is that, if you’ve been following the story, laugh-aloud funny? Because Belgium doesn’t have a government. Thanks to political stalemate in Brussels, it hasn’t had one for 15 months. No government means none of the stuff all the other governments are doing: no cuts and no ‘austerity’ packages. In the absence of anyone with a mandate to slash and burn, Belgian public sector spending is puttering along much as it always was; hence the continuing growth of their economy. It turns out that from the economic point of view, in the current crisis, no government is better than any government – any existing government.”

(From an opinion article by John Lanchester in a recent London Review of Books.)

That paragraph alone is worth column inch after column inch of sententious pieces in the American press attempting to convey what the hell the U.S. Congress is up to—yes, even in the New York Times, most of whose staffers appear not to read what Professor Paul Krugman writes on their own op-ed page. We’d be better off without this current Congress, wouldn’t we, so why not just say so? This is not an endorsement, by the way, of the Tea Party anti-government ideology, just a glum statement of observable fact. 

And why, why, was it so hard for the muckety mucks in American journalism to see that the invasion of Iraq was insane? Here’s how Bill Keller, New York Times one-time executive editor and sometime columnist, phrased the question in his recent embarrassing apologia in the Times Sunday magazine: 

“The question is really two questions: Knowing what we know now, with the glorious advantage of hindsight, was it a mistake to invade and occupy Iraq? And knowing what we knew then, were we wrong to support the war?” 

The answer to the first question is so obvious it’s not worth discussing, but so is the answer to the second one. It’s Yes, in both cases. Or as my grandchildren might say rudely, No Duh! 

My friend Ruth Rosen noted recently in these pages that Keller confessed in his piece that supporters of the invasion were “exclusively a boys' club…a little drugged by testosterone.” But I think that’s a little facile. For one thing, there’s Judith Miller, she of the non-existent Weapons of Mass Destruction. 

For another, when my whole extended family of 10 or so including babes in arms marched down Market Street on a bright spring day in a vain effort to derail the invasion, the male members of the family (including one ex-NYT reporter) were right there, as were many other male friends. Blaming stupidity on gender, tempting though it is, isn’t enough. 

What I’d really like to know is why most of the conventional press (what we used to call derisively the “newsies” when I was managing political campaigns in the 60s and 70s) is so often the last to get the news. Why did we in the Bay Area see clearly from Day 1 how badly the Iraq boondoggle would turn out, and they didn’t? This kind of question frequently occupied my mind during the ten or so years when my associates and I in Ann Arbor tried to convey the problems with that era’s war, the one in Vietnam. 

The myth of press objectivity, which first surfaced in the 1920s as a ploy to lure advertisers, has largely gone by the wayside as the Internet age has added many new voices to the process of telling stories. These voices don’t have the purported authority of the magisterial newspaper, but often they reveal information that the conventional press just doesn’t have. 

All of this has been in my mind for the past year as we’ve been working on the transition from relatively conventional periodic print publication to whatever it is that we’ve got now. One thing that’s become abundantly clear is that opinionated pieces, particularly those buttressed with a few externally verifiable facts, are much more informative than “impartial” reporting, especially in the local context. 

After living in Berkeley for such a long time, I pretty much know what’s going on, and if I miss something someone is sure to volunteer to fill me in on the many back stories which lurk around the borders of normal news. 

Here’s an example of the kind of back story which might be missed: the new apartment building now under construction on the southeast corner of Ashby and Telegraph was featured on the Berkeleyside website not long ago. The plain-vanilla story, devoid of attitude, prompted many reader comments, 75 and counting, many outraged that the city had granted numerous variances for the project, but no real explanation of why this might be. 

A recent comment: 

“a Parking lot entrance/exit ON ASHBY, JUST ABOVE TELEGRAPH ??? Somebody got away with some kind of hogwash to push that through... and I'm somebody who supports much of this sort of development... THAT particular bit of POOR DESIGN will cost us all dearly- accidents, horns, aggravation, etc...NO DOUBT ABOUT IT... wow.” 

My own preference is for more formal discourse, but this reader has a point, and it’s a public benefit to provide him with a forum to make it in, particularly since I’m not volunteering to do it myself. 

And that back story I mentioned? It surfaced in none of the 75 comments that I could determine. The attorney for the project developer, not mentioned in story or comments, is City of Berkeley Planning Commission Chair Harry Pollack. Some of the “hogwash” might be connected to that factoid. Or not. 

Another relevant factoid about another story did surface in reader response to another Berkeleyside story: Berkeley’s staff Transportation Manager is also the mayor of Albany, setting the stage for who knows what kind of conflict of interest. Does it matter? Maybe. 

After a generation of almost no coverage of Berkeley news by the conventional media, we are now blessed with several respectable sources of information. Berkeleyside is a commercial site which aims to be more than just a blog, though it uses blog software. Readers often add useful information to staff stories. Articles are heavy on lifestyle content and short on analysis, but frequently interesting. The proprietors have “partnered” with many bigger enterprises in the style pioneered by high-tech corporations, so their content might pop up anywhere, including the Chronicle, the online Bay Citizen and even the New York Times. 

(The Bay Citizen, launched with money from Warren Hellman and some of his rich friends, might be hard up for cash these days, since their staffers or perhaps interns have recently been seen asking for contributions at the Berkeley Farmers’ Market.) 

The Bay Area News Group empire has often assigned a reporter to Berkeley stories, but BANG is now in the process of re-organizing its outlets (and laying off news staff). It’s not clear where these stories will be found on a regular basis, but they’re pretty decent if you can find them. 

And Berkeley now has a Patch, a local online outpost of the far-flung Huffington Post/AOL conglomerate. It’s capable of doing useful pieces too: see today’s log (puzzlingly in reverse chronological order) of a Berkeley City Council meeting called to deal with Safeway’s plans to build a megabox on the corner of College and Claremont. Just be careful you don’t get the Berkeley New Jersey Patch by mistake—there are little Patches everywhere. 

Even the Chronicle occasionally has a good Berkeley piece, often of course lifted from local outlets. The cleaned-up East Bay Express has also been doing the occasional Berkeley story. 

All this brouhaha about little Berkeley has suggested to me that with just the two of us holding down the fort here we don’t need to work quite so hard these days. Our main goal has always been to let Berkeleyans know what’s coming down before it lands on them, and it still is, so we appreciate the help from our colleagues at other publications. Another clichéd mission statement is “to print the news and raise hell”, and with help of others on the first part of that slogan we feel freer to concentrate on the second part. 

Because of our financial woes almost all of our stories are written by volunteers who share our goal of supporting the people’s right to know what’s going on. They have opinions on most of the topics they cover, and they’re free to include them as long as opinion is clearly identified as such. We also appreciate the increasing number of strictly opinion pieces we’ve been getting. Often they are structured as comments on news found elsewhere, which is fine as long as links to the original sources are offered. 

This week I’ve shifted gears to better reflect the kind of contributions we’ve been getting. My options are limited by the software I’ve inherited, but I’ve changed what I can. Instead of doing a big Wednesday roundup issue, I’ve posted whatever’s in hand as soon as it comes in, on a daily basis with a new issue date just about every day. 

This means that you should really go to berkeleydailyplanet.com every day if you can. Some days there might be just one story, on others several. If you miss these daily issues you can always find them by clicking back with the “Previous Issue” button on the upper left side of the site—as far back as you want, to see what has gone before. 

I hope this schedule will be better for the many readers who have complained that the big issues require too much scrolling down the page, and that they often don’t get to the bottom. I hope it will be easier for me, too. I’m not getting any younger. 

One more thing: for technical reasons I can’t add comments after each story, and I’m not sure that’s a good idea anyhow, judging by the garbage that appears on the Chronicle’s sfgate.com. But please do let us know what you think by writing, as always, to opinion@berkeleydailyplanet.com