Fool's Errand, Fool's Gold or Fool's Paradise? Or some of each?

Becky O'Malley
Friday March 31, 2017 - 01:31:00 PM

Tomorrow comes yet another April Fools’ Day, remembered especially in the O’Malley family as the day in 2003 when we assumed responsibility for the Berkeley Daily Planet. Fourteen years is a long time, and yet it seems to have gone by in a blink. My chances of being around fourteen years hence are slim, so now is as good a time as any to consider what we’ve done with the last fourteen.

For insight, let’s first consider the beautiful essay contributed for our first issue by Peter Solomon. He popped up in our new office on South Shattuck as we were moving in. I’d known him somewhat during his distinguished and varied career as a typesetter, an editor of small papers including the Flatlands newspaper, the original independent Montclarion, and who know what else? His wit and wisdom were famous in certain rarefied circles that I’d moved in during a prior life in journalism so we asked him to accept the title of the Planet’s Eminence Grise. His major responsibility was to show up at staff meetings and set everyone straight as needed, which he did with humor and grace.
Here’s how he started out his piece, entitled Whose Berkeley

“Berkeley with a view of the bay and San Francisco, and one two three bridges, or Berkeley where a dumpster is the most colorful item in sight through the smudged air? 

“Whose Berkeley? The aging Nisei couple on the porch of their bungalow with its immaculate yard, very like the house their parents were forced to sell cheap in 1942, do they live in the same town as the high-tech success jogging past them to his $750,000 brown shingle a block away?

“What is Berkeley to the commuter who drives past the Claremont Hotel and blocks of manicured green toward an office in the business school? To the men, talking to each other in Spanish or Mixtec, lined up outside the lumberyards a couple of miles west hoping to get a day’s work? To the African-American police officer who grew up here but had to go 40 miles up the freeway to find a house he could afford for his own family?”

Much is the same, though some things have changed, notably the price of houses. You can read all of it here.

In the editorial slot Mike and I posed this question: Why a Newspaper Now?

Here’s the lede: 

“A newspaper? Why a newspaper? Why now? We’ve been asked these questions often by friends and family in the last three months. From time to time, we’ve even asked ourselves why we’re doing this. It’s a lot of work. It’s time consuming. It’s expensive. We were comfortably retired from the business world, enjoying our grandchildren.”
You can read the rest of our lengthy answer here if you care to, but be warned, it’s still an open question. I still don’t know why we did it, or why I’m still doing whatever it is that I’m doing now. 

But I do know that there’s still work to be done, for someone. It’s still the job of whatever passes for The Press in this online age to let the public know what’s going on. It’s possible with a good bit of effort to kind of figure out what’s happening by dipping into the San Francisco Chronicle, the East Bay Times, the Daily Californian, the East Bay Express, Berkeleyside.com. and even subscriber forums like nextdoor.com, but it’s a lot of work with uncertain results. 

Berkeleydailyplanet.com has no reporting staff any more, so our readers depend on other readers to let them know what’s happening by contributing occasional news articles plus a lot of informed opinion under the Public Comment heading. 

I share what I hear about with readers, but of course I miss a lot, since I do no systematic reporting. We also subscribe to the Bay City News Service on the readers’ behalf, which is reliable though it doesn’t offer much Berkeley coverage beyond police and fire reports. But basically, these days I’m running what amounts to a blog plus friends. Which is fine with me. 

Berkeleyans seem to have—finally—a much better city council that we did in 2003. If this new bunch (a majority of whom the Planet enthusiastically supported in the last election, plus a couple that we previously endorsed) can’t build a better Berkeley, we might as well give up. 

But there’s a lot these guys need to get moving on. The city planning staff is still the refuge of all too many incompetent partisans of the development industry embedded by the previous city manager in collusion with the previous mayor and the former planning director, though these people are gradually moving on. 

Who replaces them is important. And the same goes for new hires in other departments. 

Case in point: soon a new police chief will be chosen to fill the current vacancy, by the city manager per the city charter, but with the cooperation of the council and mayor. It would be more than sensible if the powers-that-be solicited extensive public input before offering the top job to anyone. 

It should be noted that some members of the Berkeley Police made bad decisions at the time of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, but on the other hand some made good decisions re the March4Trump fiasco. What have we learned from these experiences? Citizens have a lot to say—a groundswell of public opinion is already building, as reflected in some letters I’ve received, and it should be acknowledged in the selection process. 

And someone needs to figure out why Police Review Commission isn’t working the way it was supposed to. I’m told that the Mayor and at least one new councilmember still haven’t made their appointments to the PRC—and that’s urgent! 

That’s a couple of examples of the kind of detail that new councilmembers need to attend to, and soon. There are many more that I could list, and I imagine most readers would be able to make their own to-do lists for their representatives. 

What I think will not work as a form of communication about important civic matters is the dreadful Peak Democracy product now online on the city website, disguised by the new moniker of “Open Town Hall”. Oh no, sorry, the new new name is “Berkeley Considers”, but it’s the same incredibly poorly designed software obviously created to engineer consent that’s been around since 2011, when then-Councilperson Gordon Wozniak tried to foist it on an unsuspecting city. 

And now it’s back, as evidenced by an email that I got today from Wozniak’s District 8 successor. You can see what they were up to the last time here. Nothing much has changed. 

It still has two properties which I particularly dislike. First, subscriber/participants don’t have to publish their real names. I have zero respect for unsigned opinions, which let writers make up “alternative facts” to their hearts’ content with no one to challenge them. 

Then there are the program’s “civility guidelines” which can be seen here

Here’s my favorite part: 

How do I know if my statement is a 'disagreement' or a 'personal attack'? 

Here are some examples of statements which are, and are not, personal attacks. 


Personal Attack  


Not A Personal Attack  


He lied.  


He said he did X, but in fact he did Y.  


She misrepresented the truth.  


I don't believe what she said.  


He is greedy.  


He is making money from this project.  


It is merely a power play on her part.  


She will announce her candidacy soon.  


In the President Trump era, why can’t we just call a lie a lie when we see one? When Paul Krugman started at the New York Times, he was not allowed to use the word “lie” in his column, but now the Times uses it even in editorial headlines all the time, thanks to The Donald and his cronies. 


Yes, Virginia, liars aplenty roam amongst us, even in sanctified Berkeley, and we need to call them out when we see them. 

And greed exists, greedy people are everywhere—I’m sorry to have to be the one to tell you that, but it’s true. Possibly, just possibly, the creators of the “non-partisan” (but not nonprofit) Peak Democracy Corporation could even be among the greedy. 

The City of Berkeley has wasted way too much money on this stupid program, money which could have been better spent elsewhere. The new City Council did not approve the contract which the city staff signed with this meshuganah outfit, but they can and should cancel it if it’s not too late. 

We’ve come a long way from wondering why newspapers, haven’t we? The takeaway might be that in the absence of a newspaper which does a thorough job of covering Berkeley, it’s up to everyone to get the word out by whatever means necessary. 

So what else is new? Happy April Fool’s Day, everyone!