The Coastal Post - January 2000

Panning The Light Of The Twentieth Century

By Jeanette Pontacq

As the 21st Century begins, we would do well to reflect on how we in West Marin will protect our environment, retain our unique quality of life and promote a sustainable social and physical future for ourselves and our children in this special place. In other words, we need to reflect on how we want to go into the future as communities around Tomales Bay. This reflection needs to take place in face of the mounting political and population pressures which have only barely begun.

To even have a chance of a sustainable future, there are two rock-bottom basic requirements. One is an open, honest, community-sensitive free press, accessible by all voices.... and another is an involved citizenry speaking out and acting on their beliefs.

It is thus ironic that the Tomales Bay area, a place self-described as "seriously liberal and open-minded," does not have either the above-mentioned open, honest and accessible press nor a truly involved citizenry which feels free to either participate and/or speak out.

As Ben Bagdikian says in the Media Monopoly, first published in 1983, "Media power is political power." The Point Reyes Light is the only local newspaper that concerns itself weekly with what is happening in West Marin. Unfortunately, more and more people will testify that what is reported as happening in West Marin depends on what agenda is then being supported by the management of the paper. The spin, misquotes, misrepresentations and manufactured events so common in the Light allow the editor/owner to treat democracy as his private property, not allowing anyone but his approved "friends" to pass through the gate.

Although Bagdikian is speaking about concentrated corporate power in his famous book, the basic premise is the same for any media-when the media is only open to "approved" opinion and commentary, when it prefers spin to hard reporting, it is called propaganda. Too often, that is the case with the Point Reyes Light.

When an important community issue surfaces, would it not make sense to have the local newspaper delve into all sides of the subject, without prejudice, and report its findings to the readers? Would it not also make sense to then have the readers be able to respectfully debate and express their opinions in that same media without fear of ridicule or insult? Would it not make sense to cut the spin and report things as they really were? The winners would be both the media and the people.

The media would win because it would be a respected part of the solution for West Marin and the people would win because they would feel free to use that forum to communicate with and debate each other on any subject. It would probably even sell newspapers!

Perhaps the solution really lies with those who find themselves "approved of" by the editor and thus able to expound at will in the pages of the newspaper. If those people stood up and said that they would no longer do so unless all opinions were shown and respected, things might be different. By going along with the obvious process of only allowing "certain" voices in print, and of reporting slanted news, they become a heavy reason behind the lack of the kind of press needed for the future.

I believe the lack of an open press is a prime reason for the growing uninvolvement of citizens in what has happened, is happening, and will happen. Another prime reason, however is the uncivil, sometimes really ugly behavior one must often endure in order to have a voice. We all have neighbors and friends who have turned away from civic involvement in order to stay out of the cycle of harassment, demonization and general unpleasantness that is the framework within which issues are now processed. Many who have fought through on issues of the past have no stomach to repeat the effort under the new paradigm of incivility and media propaganda. Frankly, I don't blame them one bit.

I believe we all need to ask ourselves what it means to be a citizen in a functioning democracy. Not that we have a functioning democracy in the America of 2000 or in the Marin of 2000, but it is a goal. When the people are not informed with facts rather than spin in the media, there can be little hope of a participatory democracy. An uninformed populace allows corruption to flourish in the political arena and untruths to become accepted truths. If, however, the people could be constituted as organized citizens rather than as passive lookers-on, there might be hope. As one resident told me recently, "if this place cannot support an open press and an informed populace, what kind of hope is there that people elsewhere could do it?"

I would like to offer this comment as the new century begins.....if the residents of West Marin, who personify the liberal imperative, cannot support or demand an open, inclusive press, nor see beyond their own agendas to the good such openness and inclusion offers to all people here, then we probably don't have a rat's ass chance of directing our own destiny in this century either. Happy New Year.

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