Springertime in West Marin

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Published

March 12, 2009
West Marin Citizen

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What the seasons are to crops, the news cycle is to life in Washington, D.C. Events move to the beat of the media drum; the tree does not fall if the cameras do not appear. Release the statement within an hour of deadline so that opponents have little time to respond. Bad news goes out on Friday afternoons, whence it will sink into the cognitive black hole called the Saturday paper.

Those rituals of perception management – the “study” or “report” – are planned with one object in mind – namely, to get into the news.

Scan the news from Washington today and ask yourself how much of it wasn’t drama created for a camera. The answer will be, “Not much.” This fact is apparent to just about any sentient being. Yet the media pretends it is not so. The proverbial elephant in the room wants us to think that it is just a fly on the wall.

To people viewing from afar, through the eyes of that same media, the result is a little like watching Macbeth with the Lady Macbeth part erased. Something is moving events forward, and prompting Macbeth to say those strange things. But what?

I was having flashbacks to that Washington at the Dance Palace on Monday night. It was supposed to be a meeting on the possibility of a community-owned newspaper in West Marin. But it was turned into theater that left more than a few people thinking that they had been used in a way they couldn’t quite explain.

To recap. A group of locals that now calls itself the West Marin Alliance had offered to buy both The Light and The Citizen in order to combine them into a single paper that would be owned mainly by residents here. Instead of two struggling papers we’d have a single and probably healthy one. The Citizen was on board, The Light wasn’t; and so the meeting was about how the community could move ahead anyway.

There was a lot to discuss: ownership and management structures, how to ensure editorial independence, and the like. But those questions quickly gave way to more drama over The Light. A contingent from The Light was there, and properly so. It’s a community issue, and they are part of the community along with everybody else. But the problem that has marked the stewardship of Robert Plotkin, the owner, surfaced again – namely, that it all becomes about Robert and his paper, more than about West Marin.

For example, Plotkin repeated his contention in a recent column that The Light has more West Marin residents on staff than The Citizen does. There’s not space to parse that out, so suffice to say that the argument is diversionary at best, and ultimately beside the point. The question is who is going to own the West Marin paper, and whether the ownership will be such that the paper could be sold to an outside chain, as Plotkin recently tried to do with The Light.

Coincidentally, it appears, Plotkin’s mother was in town that day, and she gave us all a piece of her mind. Why had we been so mean to her son? He had been published in the L.A. Times, the New York Times – where was our appreciation? The Citizen, she said, had been born of a “seed of hate,” a contention for which she omitted sourcing. It was less Washington than Jerry Springer – embarrassing for what it revealed, which was more than most probably wanted to know. What was going on here? How did a discussion of community journalism go off on this unfortunate track? Actually, Springer and Washington are not that far apart; and as in the latter, the drama at the Dance Palace on Monday seemed to have been activated at least in part by a video camera, with attached mic.

When we arrived we found a tallish man preparing to tape the proceedings. He was fuzzy on details: production company in L.A., pilot of some kind, possibly to become a show or something on the newspaper situation out here. But worry not. None of us would appear in a final version if we didn’t want to.

As though that were the only thing we might be concerned about, and as though “production company” and “LA” had a talismanic authority that should put our questions to rest.

Cameras trigger a wariness in me. Sometimes it concerns intent; but more it’s the way this supposedly “objective” eye alters what it sees. I asked the man (I learned later that his name is Jonathan Karsch, of something called Relativity Media) if he was concerned that his presence at this meeting might change it, and that the story his camera reported might be one that it itself had helped to evoke.

Well, if I had a problem then I could refuse to sign a release, he said. Beyond that he couldn’t see an issue.

Soon thereafter the dramatics started. The Light’s rehash of the old arguments could not have been for us. We are tired of it, most of us – tired of being torn between two papers like the children of divorced parents, and tired of worrying that we could lose them both. Perhaps Karsch will do a fine job. But cameras have an alchemy that is not entirely benign – or honest either. They beget performance, and thus become part of the story they purport only to record. And that’s aside from the potential finger on the scale in the editing process. Let’s hope Karsch is alert to this. His failure to acknowledge it was not reassuring.

I realized afterwards that there is a symmetry between that worry, and my concerns about Plotkin’s early ambitions for The Light – concerns that centered not on his personality, but rather his sense of what a community newspaper should be.

Plotkin set out to make The Light a showcase of “literary journalism,” which is a form easier to talk about than to do well, especially on a weekly schedule. It also can be jailbait for the ambitious, and those with a tendency to show off. Plotkin invoked Joan Didion in particular, (and still does when trying to attract interns.) Didion is the classic case of reporter as outsider. She came into a locality with her superior intelligence and sensibility, did her story for her readers in New York and L.A., and then moved on. The locals did not always fare well in her telling.

The appeal of this model to journalism school students is understandable. Done well, it is wonderful in the right venues – but that isn’t necessarily a community weekly, at least not as the staple. Community journalism is cut of a different cloth. We live the stories we write, together; readers also are the people written about. This means our truth telling must be leavened with neighborliness. The original meaning of the word “gentleman” was, “Fit to bear arms.”

We also need lots of mundanity if that’s a word – on reservoir levels and planning meetings and stuff on which the story is the story and not the person writing it. We don’t necessarily want to be subject always to Joan Didion with her loupe, A community paper is more a marriage than a date. It needs civility, and self-awareness. Humility helps too.

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