In the last issue of the Planet, reader Terry Doran asked some interesting questions which are central to our ongoing discussion of the future of the news. Here’s his letter again:
Becky O’Malley, in her Jan. 29 editorial, justifiably bemoans the difficulties of sustaining a print publication. However, if Ms. O’Malley could figure out what she is trying to produce, and be honest about it, she may get more sympathy for her plight. She even sites Victor Navasky, former editor and publisher of The Nation magazine, but doesn’t seem to understand that he is talking about “journals of opinion,” not newspapers in his book titled, A Matter of Opinion.
Ms. O’Malley describes the Planet as “professionally reported news,” but is it? Maybe if she described the Planet as “professionally created opinion” she might actually receive more than 50 or 60 responses to her appeal for support.
Let’s just look at one article as an example from this same edition of the Planet, “Zoning Board Approves Kashani’s Ashby Ave. Condos.” This project was approved by the Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB) by a 7-1 vote. So what should a “professional journalist,” working for a “newspaper” write? What is the story that the readers would welcome as “news”? (Full disclosure: I am one of the seven board members voting yes, and am a retired journalism teacher).
I would think, as a “news story,” that the overwhelming vote by ZAB should be in the article. It was not. I would also think that the reasons ZAB approved this project should be in the article, but not one ZAB member was quoted or cited. And I would think the public would be interested in knowing how this project effects Berkeley, being one of the largest residential structures proposed for West Berkeley in recent history. What was at this site before this project, how does it fit into Berkeley’s General Plan, San Pablo Avenue Plan, Berkeley’s Climate Action Plan, or help or hurt the housing needs of Berkeley? None of this was in the article.
Instead, the few critics, supported by one ZAB member in the end, were highlighted in the first two paragraphs of the article and the bulk of the article was devoted to their objections. Again, seven out of eight members supported this project and yet not one thing was mentioned in the article, until the very last paragraph, about “any” benefit to Berkeley when many were discussed at the meeting, by board members and the public.
So Ms. O’Malley, what is it you are trying to sustain, a “newspaper” or a “journal of opinion”? Your answer may just be the solution to your problem.
Zoning Adjustments Board member
Mr. Doran raises important points, worth a second look in this space. I don’t know whether he’s ever been a working journalist, but he’s certainly been around a long time—he was the Berkeley High yearbook adviser back in the day when my kids were there. He has sought many political offices locally and held some of them.
He’s speaking up for a traditional American view of journalism which is fast vanishing: coverage of decision-making bodies as if they were baseball games, with a box score at the end. The problem here, just like in the big world of baseball, is that some of the players are on steroids and the fans don’t know about it. We think it’s the job of papers to give the whole story, not just report on winners and losers.
In the ZAB decision in question, it would have been news if the seven members of the board who almost always vote yes on development proposals had voted no for a change—“man bites dog” is news, “dog bites man” is not. And the difficult part of reporting on a story like this is that reporters in a small town like Berkeley almost always know the back story, just as sports reporters in San Francisco gossiped for years about steroid use by prominent players before they were able to report on it in on the sports page.
Reporters who cover land use decision-making bodies in Berkeley are well aware that members of the Planning Commission, the Zoning Adjustments Board, the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the West Berkeley Project Area Committee who disagree with the pro-development agenda advanced by Mayor Bates and the Planning Department staff have been systematically purged by members of the ruling council majority with an enthusiasm worthy of old Joe Stalin. Should reporters pretend that they don’t know this when they write their meeting stories, or should they let readers in on the game?
All of our reporters, and indeed anyone who walks through our newsroom while stories are being swapped, even the lady who brings in the mail, can form a very accurate opinion about why ZAB likes almost everything it sees these days. Should we keep it a secret?
In the story in question, the applicant, developer Ali Kashani, has entered into a business partnership with Mark Rhoades, formerly a highly placed official in the city of Berkeley’s Planning Department, which conveniently gave this project full support at ZAB. Not only that, Rhoades’ wife Erin runs the Livable Berkeley pro-development lobbying group. Should all of this back story, which certainly influences ZAB when Kashani’s projects are up for review, be in every story about his many projects? None of it, by the way, was in the story Doran criticized.
And Planet readers have other ways of finding out what’s going on. One of our non-traditional policies is that we allow all of our employees to submit letters and commentaries to the opinion section. We recently received a letter from Anne Wagley, not a reporter, but the Planet’s Calendar and Arts Editor. She’s personally active in civic affairs, and like Mr. Doran, she’s a former City Council candidate.
Here’s how she reacted to Doran’s letter:
So Mr. Terry Doran does not like Ms. Bhattacharjee’s reporting because she does not give enough praise to the Zoning Adjustments Board, on which Mr. Doran sits, and the board’s approval of Mr. Kashani’s mega-condo project on San Pablo and Ashby.
Isn’t this the same Mr. Kashani who wrote a letter to his developer friends urging them to give money to Mr. Doran’s (failed) attempt to win a City Council seat? The same letter landed in the hands of the Planet and was reported on.
Well, what happened to Mr. Kashani’s plea for donations to this friend Mr. Doran? A quick look at the latest contribution reports on the City of Berkeley web site reveals that more than $3,000 came in to Mr. Doran’s campaign at the end of October, just before the election, from developers, their spouses, their employees and their architects, each giving the maximum allowable contribution of $250.
Mr. Doran lost his city council bid, but he remains on the Zoning Adjustments Board. A great place to have friends. I think the phrase goes ‘I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine’ but in this case the scratching is done with dollar bills.
There’s more than a grain of truth in her letter, as there is in many communications we receive from our readers.
Chances are that Mr. Doran is not the only member of a Berkeley quasi-judiciary body who’s effectively playing inside baseball with a little help from steroids, in the form of campaign contributions or other rewards. The Planning Commission, for example, is currently engaged in dismantling the citizen-created Downtown Area Plan. It’s not an accident that six of its nine members work in the building industry and stand to benefit from loosened zoning standards, including the commissioner who replaced Roia Ferrazares when Councilmember Darryl Moore purged her recently.
Our Planning Commission reporter knows this, and points it out on occasion, including in this issue. Is he just reporting “his opinion,” or is he presenting a relevant fact of a kind too often papered over in traditional mainstream American dailies?
In most of the world reporters are allowed, even encouraged, to bring the full scope of their world knowledge to bear on their stories. That’s true in England, in France, in Israel, and in many of the papers in India where Planet reporter Riya Bhattacharjee grew up. It makes for a much livelier read, and more important, it brings press accounts much closer to the truth on the ground.
Mr. Doran hopes to instruct me on how to get more sympathy for my plight. But it’s not just my plight, it’s everyone’s plight if newspapers disappear. Perhaps some new angels can be found to rescue the Planet a second time, but that seems unlikely. Maybe it would be worthwhile, as Mr. Doran hints, simply to transform the paper into a pure journal of opinion, perhaps published online only, with no professional reporters to ferret out unpleasant secrets.
What’s likely is that unless people who live here and read the paper decide that they’re ready to make the leap to community-supported journalism, the news reporting that they take for granted will disappear. Today’s front page, therefore, is designed to give citizens a taste of what Berkeley without news would be like.