Columns written for the Berkeley Daily Planet newspaper, Berkeley, CA





January 26, 2007

It is not at all unusual for newspapers, television and radio news outlets, and the various journalists who work for them to come away with a different story on the same event. Put five people in a room to witness the same event and, almost invariably, they will write five separate accounts of what happened—most often not because they are lying or because they are trying to cover something up, but because of differences in what they think is important, what they actually saw or heard, and what type of background they brought to the event that enhanced—or colored—their interpretation. Add to that the built-in biases of every news organization—what audiences they are aiming for and what areas of concern they are promoting—and you can easily see why a variety of news sources is necessary for an informed citizenry and a healthy democracy. If your news is coming from only one source, you will be almost as misinformed as if you got no news at all. It is only through sifting through several information outlets—looking at issues and events from several accounts and angles—that we can begin to discover what is fact, and what is truth.

That is one of the reasons I found myself a little disturbed by some of the allegations made in reaction to the events at the Paramount Theater inaugural earlier this month. What is being alleged is not that different reporters looked at the same event and honestly saw different things and interpreted them in different ways, but rather the implicit charge that there is a concerted attempt by some reporters and news outlets to cover up anti-Latino racism in Oakland’s black community.

At issue is the charge that during the special, on-stage reorganization meeting of the Oakland City Council that occurred in the middle of the Paramount inaugural event, some members of the audience made anti-Mexican American statements and slurs while Council was considering the re-election of Ignacio De La Fuente—a Mexican-American—as Council President. At least one prominent Bay Area media outlet has identified those slurs as coming from African-Americans.

Accounts of the booing from the audience appeared in almost every media story of the inaugural, but while some news stories mentioned and highlighted what they called anti-Mexican slurs, other news stories left them out entirely. And the failure to mention those slurs has led to attacks on some reporters.

Shortly after the January 7th inaugural, Oakland progressive activist, former City Council aide and City Council candidate Pamela Drake filed a story with the on-line Grand Lake Guardian newspaper which reported on the booing, but left out the racial slurs. Drake wrote merely that, “during the shouting match that ensued in the audience over De La Fuente’s reelection to president, [Councilmember Pat] Kernighan tried to speak to the crowd to explain that she thought Ignacio would not stand in the way of change…—she was drowned out.” ("Royal Fireworks," January 13, 2007)

That provoked a spirited online debate among Grand Lake Guardian readers, pretty much evenly divided over whether Drake’s account was accurate and fair or merely “offer[ed] excuses and glosse[d] over an embarrassing display of inexcusable behavior,” according to one reader. One reader, David Dickson, concluded that “the reporting by Pamela Drake on this event was among the most paternalistic rationalization of racist conduct that I've ever read. But it was progressive racism, so that makes it OK. Something we can ignore and take lightly. (at our own peril)” Another reader, Jim Puskar added that “I've read all the commentary about the inaugural, and none of it excuses the conduct of the people who jeered and booed Mr. de la Fuente with crude, racist remarks.”

But were anti-Latino racist remarks made at the Paramount event?

So far, I have heard of only one account of someone who says they heard such remarks themselves, and this person says there were both anti-black and anti-Latino remarks being made. One reader identified only as Michael wrote to the Grand Lake Guardian in response to the Pamela Drake article: “I don't care what ‘side’ one is on in this town, the behavior on both sides at the swearing in was indefensible. I had a woman sitting in front of me who appeared to be with her granddaughter yelling, ‘Go home you damn Mexican’ and a man sitting next to me (who I later learned lived in Piedmont), who turned to me and said, ‘This is what happens when the blacks are in charge’ I understand Pam's argument that some steam was being let off, but the venomous racism on both sides can not, and should not, be dismissed.”

Meanwhile, why didn’t such accounts appear in Ms. Drake’s story? I have talked with her since she wrote that story, and she says she didn’t report it for the simple reason that she did not hear any.

The account of the booing incident that I wrote for the Daily Planet was similar to that of Ms. Drake’s. I characterized the audience disruption of the Council President election only as “spirited boos and catcalls” and added that “De La Fuente’s election led to prolonged jeering from the crowd that disrupted the Council meeting and only could be halted when Dellums stood up” and stopped them. I did not mention any racist remarks for the simple reason that, like Ms. Drake, I did not hear any remarks that I would characterize as racist—either in general or anti-Latino in particular.

But both Ms. Drake and myself characterize ourselves as progressives, so is this simply a case of covering up “progressive racism,” as Mr. Dickson charges in his Grand Lake Guardian post?

In an interview with a KTVU reporter shortly after the inagural events, East Bay Express reporter Will Harper, who was at the Paramount, described the disruption as “some people screaming out calling somebody a crook and a snake,” without any mention of racial epithets.

And consider this from the East Bay Express blog last January 12 by Harper’s fellow Express reporter Bob Gammon. In a post entitled “What Racism?”, Gammon wrote, “If you only read today’s Oakland Tribune and San Francisco Chronicle version of Monday’s inauguration ceremony of Mayor Ron Dellums, you might think the event was awash in racial tension. It was not. I attended the event, as did my Express colleagues, Will Harper and Chris Thompson, and none of us heard a single racial slur.”

A reader identified only as dto510 later wrote a post to the Express blog calling Mr. Gammon “a die-hard Perata conspiracist and author of slanted political articles,” but he is widely-considered one of the Bay Area’s most respected investigative journalists, with readers sometimes disagreeing with his conclusions, but rarely his research. In addition, readers familiar with Mr. Harper and Mr. Thompson’s work at the East Bay Express, whatever opinion one may or may not have of them, can hardly believe that they would lie about not hearing racist slurs at the inaugural or, if they had heard them, not written about them prominently in their subsequent accounts.

Other news outlets mentioned—and even highlighted—the booing in their accounts immediately following the inaugural, but had no mention of any anti-Latino racial slurs. That’s true for stories that were broadcast on KTVU, KRON, and KPIX. (The key term here is immediately following the inaugural, but that’s something we’ll have to get to at a later time.)

While I do not know where Ms. Drake was sitting during the inauguration, the East Bay Express reporters were all located in roughly the location where I was, in or near Row E, which is close to the orchestra pit, on the right-hand side of the auditorium, facing the stage. So it is entirely probably that during the raucous booing which was centered in the middle of the auditorium far from us, we did not hear things which were said, but which others heard.

But some sitting in other parts of the auditorium did not hearing any racist remarks, either. Oakland activist James Vann, an African-American who works with several multi-ethnic organizations and causes, wrote to the Grand Lake Guardian that “I was at the Paramount Inauguration event last Monday, and was one of the public speakers on the ‘Election of Council President.’ I certainly heard the booing and jeering, and while I would not be surprised if a few people, and it was probably very few, inappropriately expressed their frustration, however, I did not hear nor witnessed any racial epithets from the vicinity of my seat.”

I talked about these issues with another Oakland leader this week who is African-American but who is not identified solely to African-American causes: former mayoral candidate Wilson Riles Jr., who once held the Council seat now held by Mr. De La Fuente. While Mr. Riles said he did not hear any anti-Latino slurs himself at the inauguration, he encouraged me to continue my investigation to find out exactly what happened.

“African-Americans have long been on the other side of this issue, charging racism in a situation where others say it didn’t happen or doesn’t exist,” Mr. Riles told me. “It’s important for us to acknowledge that when other groups make the same charge.”

So what actually happened at the Paramount, and how did the allegations of anti-Latino racism get blown up by some into the defining moment of that event? More to follow.