Honoring the Bagdikian Legacy

Becky O'Malley
Friday March 18, 2016 - 10:50:00 AM

On the bulletin board at our house, along with the kids’ old school photos and postcards from bygone trips, there’s a small framed handwritten note with a November 2009 date: “Dear Becky, Fight the Philistines like Hell”. It’s signed “As ever, Ben Bagdikian”.

If I were keeping score on the fight for the last 80 years or so, I think I’d report it as Bagdikian 1,000, Philistines 0. Oh, maybe the forces of evil scored a notch or two in Ben’s 96 years on this earth, but all in all I think he managed to lick them most of the time.

If you’d like to see some of the high points of a life well spent, there were many laudatory obituaries published when he died last week. As of my last Google search, the number of cites was up to 290,000 and there are probably more now. The flashiest achievement noted by many was hooking up Dan Ellsberg with the Washington Post so they could publish the Pentagon Papers. But the most influential work Ben Bagdikian did was probably his book “The Media Monopoly”, which went into seven editions, the last in 2004 under the name of “The New Media Monopoly”.

When that edition came out, Dorothy Bryant did a delightful interview with Ben for the Planet which shed light on his early years as an Armenian refugee from Turkey who ended up in New England. (Bagdikian’s Long Journey to Journalistic Heights By Dorothy Bryant Special to the Planet 06-01-2004 )

One little-known fact Dorothy uncovered is that he was actually named after the heroic Ben-Hur, a flamboyant name which he dropped as soon as possible. I noticed that in one French-language obit he was called a “Turc”, which I doubt would have pleased his Armenian family of origin.

As an adult he was devoted to free speech and to the independent press, and he was a persistent cheerleader for publications which shared his enthusiasms.

When we were trying our damnedest to provide Berkeley with a real print newspaper, he was a constant source of encouragement and advice. The framed note was sent at one of the times (the worst of several such) when we really appreciated his support. That was when a small claque of angry partisans of the government of Israel, aided and abetted by some unprincipled local politicians, attacked the Planet for publishing a letter critical of some of Israel’s policies. He stuck by us all the way. 

Ben contributed a couple of longer essays and a few shorter pieces and letters to our efforts. 

In 2007, he said this : ( Commentary: The Planet and Democracy By Ben H. Bagdikian 12-21-2007). 

I love our Daily Planet because it represents something fundamental in American democracy, fundamentals I have yet to hear in any broadcast or national news organization.  

Unlike any other industrialized democracy, the United States leaves to local communities basic powers that other industrial democracies leave to their national governments: education of our children, how our land will be used, sales taxes, where and how our highways will be built, and decisions on the community systems for water supply, sewage, fire and police departments.  

In other major countries these are national bureaucracies. In the United States, these are decided by local boards, locally elected. Do you want to know if last night your child’s middle school decided it will cut music and art to save money? Don’t wait to hear it on ABC “Good Morning America” or the CBS or CNN “Newsroom.”  

It’s a cliche that citizens need news but most serious people who pay attention to it think in terms of the New York Times, CNN and the PBS News Hour. Those and a smattering of other network broadcasts are useful for national, international or cultural news and enrichment. But they don’t produce what the Planet does.  

Our paper’s publisher, editor, reporters and essayists are more like the miracle of the bigtime comic strip’s Clark Kent of the funny paper’s Daily Planet who keeps saving his city from the Bad Guys.  

I don’t think it is too heroic to say that The Berkeley Daily Planet is a real life version of Clark Kent’s comic strip Planet, except that Clark Kent saves his city from the Bad Guys who look like crooks or demons from outer space. The Berkeley Daily Planet (even if it’s not out every day) is an example of what saves one democracy right here, at home.  

Sadly, print newspapers, including the Berkeley Daily Planet, have continued to disappear in the nine years since he wrote that. His analysis of where media ownership was going was all too prescient. Small-time operators like us just can’t afford to publish in print anymore. 

Just recently, the Bay Area News Group, part of the Media News conglomerate which has over the years acquired the suburban Bay Area organizations which published historically under local place names like the Berkeley Voice, the Contra Costa Times, the Oakland Tribune and the San Jose Mercury-News has announced that it will collapse the whole assortment of “brands” they’ve bought into two publications, the East Bay Times and the Mercury News. I can’t even begin to understand what that might mean, but you can read their PR release about it here. And judge for yourself. 

You can be sure it will be less news, more hype.  

Today we learned that the U.S. Justice Department has filed suit in a probably vain attempt to prevent another media monopoly, the one which now owns the Los Angeles Times, from buying up all of its suburban competitors like the Orange County Register. Good luck with that. 

Online local publications like Berkeleyside.com continue to make an effort to provide readers with local news, but increasingly they depend on opinion (which is usually contributed by writers for free), restaurant write-ups, feel-good soft features and police reports (also provided essentially for free) for most of their copy—and this remnant of the Berkeley Daily Planet is no exception, I’m sorry to say.  

San Francisco has an assortment of under-funded and under-staffed bloggish opinionated news outlets like 48hills.org and beyondchron.org, but they don’t add up in aggregate to one daily newspaper. The Hearst-acquired San Francisco Chronicle is a pale and slender shadow of its former flamboyant self, and now that Jon Carroll has retired there’s really no reason to read it most days. 

Real reporting, especially what’s now called grandly “enterprise” reporting, which used to be just plain old reporting, costs money, and the media monopolies have better things to spend their money on most of the time. Non-profits funded by liberal capitalists like Warren Hellman (Center for Investigative Reporting) and Herb and Marion Sandler (Pro Publica) do a relatively small number of investigative reports on major national topics each year, mostly using computer-assisted data mining techniques, but they are no substitute for local newspapers collecting facts on the ground. 

Ben’s 2009 piece about the need for local papers continued: 

For example, the Elmwood-Claremont folk have a love-hate relationship with the local landmark, the Claremont Hotel, and periodically some new international corporation buys the hotel and plans new local roads, an addition of condos and multi-level garages in the neighborhood.  

If it gets serious, as it has more than once, it may be hashed out in an afternoon meeting at Oakland City Hall, where a lot of people from Stonewall Road and environs, most in sweaters and sports-team jackets, some with babies in arms, go to the Oakland Zoning Board meeting, and argue it out with the hotel’s black-suited, black-shoed, black-socked team of lawyers. It becomes a civics-book demonstration of local democracy. Opponents sit near each other, and gossip and argue during breaks, and opponents who speak start their time at the microphone talking about how much they like the hotel, celebrate birthdays in the big dining room, use it to put up their visiting grandmothers, but hate the new plans that transform the open space it represents. You find no mention in the national media.  

If the hearing had been national and sessions held in Washington, it would have cost millions. It would be Section III, 4c,, paragraph S-22 of House Buildings and Grounds subcommittee agenda, and a group of $500-an-hour lobbyists who never saw the Claremont would have it at the bottom of their priority list.  

So let us not forget that many of our most important family and home problems, from schooling to sewers, are local, and that is not an arcane footnote in a civics book. It’s whether we really have a voice in some of the most central issues in the quality of our family life.  

That’s why I love the Daily Planet. I’m glad that a few other Bay Area local papers, like the Bay Guardian, deal now and then with Berkeley, though usually it’s news of some oddball event.  

And here’s the sad part: exactly the same scenario is being enacted at this very moment at the Claremont Hotel, nine years later, verbatim as Ben described it: “some new international corporation buys the hotel and plans new local roads, an addition of condos and multi-level garages in the neighborhood.” 

But this time both the print Daily Planet and the Bay Guardian are history, and no one has reported the latest Claremont maneuver as far as I can determine. I myself have heard about it only from gossip. It appears that the hotel management has met with some selected neighborhood groups, but there’s been nothing written about it, online or in print, that I can find. No one will report on that Oakland zoning board meeting this time, since even the Oakland Tribune has been subsumed into the Media News monopoly. 

What I’ve learned so far is that Richard Blum (international financier, U.C. Regent, husband of Senator Diane Feinstein) is a major financial backer of the newly christened “Claremont Club & Spa, a Fairmont Hotel.” I only know this because I was invited to the grand opening of the transmogrified interior, an unbelievably tacky party which featured a lot of actors dressed as 1920s gangsters. Blum gave the inaugural speech, in which he repeatedly gloated that as a loyal Bears fan he’d always wanted to own a Berkeley property. Evidently no one told him the Claremont is in Oakland. And the redecoration is even tackier than the party was. Oh well…I didn’t report on it at the time, my bad.  

Maybe the actors were actually there to symbolize the new ownership, a collection of slippery money men that some might call banksters. No one mentioned the roads, condos and garages in the works, though I should have guessed after reading Ben’s predictions. 

Now that he’s gone, where do those of us who are left behind go from here? One positive change is that new media makes it possible for anyone to be a reporter—not the god-like impartial reporter of the past, but a new breed of passionate engaged citizen-reporters, like all of those brave people who have used their cell phones to document outrageous occurrences.  

Here in Berkeley, a number of competent and even talented writers have been submitting work for publication in the online Planet with no compensation except the opportunity to describe the world as they see it, for which we should all be grateful. That seems to be the future, so let’s embrace it.  

Is there anyone out there who went to those neighborhood meetings who wants to report on what’s up with the Claremont? It’s the least we can do, after all, to honor Ben Bagdikian’s heritage—just keep on keeping on,by whatever means necessary.  

Functioning democracy depends on informed citizens. The Philistines never give up.