COMMENTARY: Try not to irritate Lon Allan
June 17, 2008
By DANIEL BLACKBURN
I have a recurring dream in which the local media crowd works in concert to slay the dragons of government corruption and to cultivate an environment of informed citizens. And then I open my eyes, and my Tribune, and realize what a far-away fantasy that really is.
It is a closely-held belief of mine that newspapers assume a public trust when they publish, and that applies to UncoveredSLO.com. That’s why Trib columnist Lon Allan’s latest love letter to his Atascadero political cronies in today’s issue is oddly disconcerting.
The headline on Allan’s piece is “Gadflies to shoo away – and to praise.” He bemoans the reporting by UncoveredSLO.com of a verbal altercation between city council member Tom O’Malley and Mayor Mike Brennler that threatened to degenerate into a fist fight. Allan calls the article “another hit piece.”
This is a report which has triggered more than 530 responses from readers. Some of those are arguably nonsensical, to be sure. But that number of comments suggest that a lot of San Luis Obispo County residents not only have an enormous need to know, but a hunger to make known their own views, too. Until today, there had been no word of this incident in The Trib. Allan exploits Trib white space to criticize people who believe elected officials’ public behavior is subject to news coverage.
“Knowing O’Malley as I do, I’m sure he regretted his actions as they were happening,” wrote spinmeister Allan. Sure O’Malley did. Like Eisenhower regretted launching D-Day.
Of course, Allan can be forgiven for trying to provide smoke and mirrors to cover for his old buddy. What really makes this whole thing amazing is that some editor allowed Allan to get his cheerleader puffery into print without asking the columnist the obvious question: What the hell is this all about?
When community newspapers are so openly soft in news selection, and allow beat reporters, columnists and editors to become socially entwined with the public officials and community personalities whose activities they cover, it’s a formula for an informational vacuum and an uninformed citizenry.
In a real newspaper, Allan’s kind of drivel would be relegated to the “Letters to the Editor” section. Despite the fact that no one but the most attentive insider has any idea what he’s talking about, Allan castigates a gaggle of citizens he calls “gadflies.” These are people (and one unnamed ‘alternative news Web site’) who apparently disrupt Allan’s Utopian vision of a peaceful Atascadero community by (gasp!) involving themselves in city affairs and commenting freely on those affairs.
It’s a disservice when a community newspaper doesn’t properly cover the news (Estate Financial and Hurst, the Cal Poly Saudi deal, cushy county employee deals with vendors, questionable FEMA applications in Atascadero, to name a few others). It’s also a disservice to publish article after article about how rosy things are in certain SLO County business environs that fly in the face of fact. But when a newspaper pundit criticizes regular, involved citizens because they are viewed as picking on his hot-tempered pal, it borders on being hugely irresponsible.
Allan should re-read some of his own words: “Thomas Jefferson made reference to the need for a vigilant press and public.” This is a columnist who can’t define a vigilant press and doesn’t much care for that vigilant public.