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The Planet and Democracy

By Ben H. Bagdikian
Wednesday February 18, 2009 - 06:57:00 PM

This commentary was originally published in the Daily Planet on Dec. 21, 2007. Bagdikian, a Berkeley resident, is former dean of the UC Berkeley School of Journalism, former editor of the Washington Post, and the author of The New Media Monopoly.  


I speak here not about Planet Earth, though god knows we need to protect it from the Strangeloves in Washington who don’t mind pulmonary disease from truck exhausts and lost shorelines from rising sea levels. I’m referring to the Berkeley Daily Planet because democracy in the United States requires something that is provided by papers like the Planet.  

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 cliché 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 big time 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.  

Becky O’Malley, the executive editor and her husband, Michael, the publisher, not only seem to have beaten the jinx that killed other Berkeley newspapers in the last 30 years. National chains of “local papers” have also tried it with big backup money but their titles were usually oxymorons. They tried to look like “local” papers but they were really national corporations trying to add to their national circulation unconnected with the fate of Berkeley.  

Similarly, national TV and radio networks are full of self-congratulations for their clever accumulation of media power. Rupert Murdoch stalks the Earth in his ambition to dominate the globe. The New York Times is an admirable paper whose national edition is good for major events in the Bay Area. For those with strong stomachs there are Murdoch’s Fox commentators who, if they ever mention Berkeley, it’s a reference to a city of commie kooks.  

I love our local Planet because it is close to unique in being truly local. If you’re lucky, you may find a little local news from a lonely one-man tiny local radio news program, operating out of a storefront with egg crates for sound protection. Berkeley gets some Berkeley news in the Bay Guardian and from KPFA, depending on who’s in charge in the continuing warfare in that otherwise valuable FM outlet.  

Is a new highway going through your back lawn? Don’t waste your time on the Wall Street Journal or Newsweek. If you’re lucky, you will have a local paper reporting your city’s news.  

And what about locally owned and operated independent stores? Your neighborhood dry cleaner can’t afford and doesn’t want an ad on CNBC. CNBC goes to Montana, Texas, South Carolina and Oklahoma. His or her customers usually live within a mile of the establishment. The local shoe repair guy doesn’t have Fort Worth cowboys coming to Berkeley for new heels—our local heel-and-sole customers are in the same city as his store. The same goes for the local folk who open their own spaghetti joint, or bakery, flower shop, or fruit and vegetable stand. If they advertise at all beyond a sign in the window, it’s in the strictly local newspaper.  

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.  

So when you vote, if you don’t read local and nationally oriented propositions carefully, your kid’s school may eliminate calculus so they can win lottery money for high grades, and you may wake up to discover that your garden is going to be a freeway down ramp.