Update on Tower Theatre op-ed controversy: Zocalo Public Square revises column, but what about the people who already read it statewide?
Last week, The Bee (sort of) redeemed itself regarding the Tower column fiasco when it published a rebuttal from Jaguar Bennett, a member of the Save the Tower Theatre Demonstration Committee. That was a good thing. I still don’t think the original piece by Joe Mathews, a syndicated opinion columnist for the statewide Zocalo Public Square news and opinion site, should have been published by the Bee in the first place because of its factual errors and skimpy research. If you’re a local media outlet and decide to run an opinion piece by an “outsider” on a controversial local issue, you’d better be extra careful that it’s a well written argument — because your readers are sure to know if it isn’t.
But I’m glad that the Bee immediately offered some balance on the issue.
I’m not feeling as charitable this week toward Zocalo Public Square. This public-interest organization, which positions itself as a high-minded, intellectual space that examines “essential questions in an accessible, broad-minded, and democratic spirit,” certainly hasn’t endeared itself to hundreds of progressive residents in the central San Joaquin Valley over the way it handled the Mathews column.
First, for those who didn’t see the original column (or my own rebuttal), some quick background: The piece essentially asked opponents of the sale of the Tower Theatre to Adventure Church to roll over and acquiesce. In an entreaty lightly misted with geographical and moral superiority, Mathews encouraged Fresnans to drop their “holy war” over the issue and simply trust an anti-gay church to assume ownership of the centerpiece institution in the city’s self-proclaimed gay/progressive/welcoming neighborhood. (One wonders if he’d have the same reaction if an evangelical church was able to finagle such a deal for the Castro Theatre in San Francisco.)
My piece took Mathews to task not only for his factual errors (he described the theater as struggling to find audiences in the “age of Netflix,” which overlooks that the Tower, a performing arts center, hasn’t been a working movie theater for decades) but also his overlooking such critical issues as zoning.
Bennett followed with his Bee rebuttal in a forceful, diplomatic response. If encourage you to read it, particularly for the strong statement he makes regarding Adventure Church’s chief transgression:
Ordinarily, a zoning change this drastic can’t happen without public meetings. But Adventure Church hasn’t applied for a rezoning—it just breaks zoning law every Sunday, creating a de facto zoning change with no public input. And the city of Fresno, for whatever reason, is declining to enforce its own zoning laws. Through inaction, the city is allowing a situation of effective discrimination: A conservative evangelical church is allowed to break the law, and gay-owned businesses receive no protection from the law.
For Fresno Bee readers, at least, Bennett’s swift response at least gave him a chance to correct the errors in Mathews’ piece and present his constituency’s side of the issue.
But what about others who read Mathews’ column across the state in other news outlets?
I received letters from readers who saw the piece in the Bakersfield Californian, the San Francisco Chronicle and Ventura County Star.
You can also find the column on Zocalo Public Square’s website.
Big changes at Zocalo
Interestingly, the column on the Zocalo site has been changed since the Fresno outcry. It differs significantly from the syndicated version that was initially published in the Chronicle and other outlets.
The revised column fixes Mr. Mathews’ error in describing the Tower as a working movie theater facing challenges in the “era of Netflix.” (It’s been a performing arts center for three decades.) The new text reads: “But, like so many of California’s signature theaters, (the Tower) has struggled, especially in the pandemic.”
The revision is about more than just correcting one factual error, however. There are significant changes from the version that ran in the Fresno Bee. These include:
• The acknowledgement that Adventure Church held services in violation of city COVID rules.
• The elimination of the condescending “wise communities” working- together motif.
• The addition of the issue of zoning, and an acknowledgment that the Tower District neighborhood specific plan does not allow religious services at that particular location.
• The addition that there is “considerable talk” of other people or institutions who might want to buy the place.
It’s heartening to know that fixes were made. But how many people go to the Zocalo site to read the “Connecting California” column versus the number who read it in syndicated form across the state?
There is no indication, no editor’s note, no anything attached to the column informing the reader that substantial revisions were made to the text.
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I notice that the corrected column must have been sent out to Zocalo’s syndicated subscribers, because the “new” version was published by such outlets as LA Progressive. But, again, there’s no indication to the reader whatsoever that big changes were made to the original piece.
My next beef with Zocalo: For a site that seeks to create, as its mission statement says, “a welcoming intellectual space and engage a new and diverse generation in the public square,” it sure is hard to contact anyone there to answer questions about the Tower column.
On July 21, I emailed Zocalo’s executive director, Moira Shourie. Note that Ms. Shourie’s contact info is the only way I could see on the masthead (list of editorial employees) to contact anyone:
I explained that I am an arts journalist in Fresno working on a follow-up to my Tower column and asked that these questions be answered, preferably by the editor on the piece:
• What is Zocalo’s policy regarding corrections? Is there an easily accessible place on your website to look for them? Is there one posted for this column?
• I have talked to dozens of readers across the state who read the original piece in the San Francisco Chronicle, Salinas Californian, Bakersfield Californian and others. Will a correction about the Tower column be sent out to your member news organizations?
• The revised column on your website is different enough from the original that it really can’t be described as merely a “corrected” column. The facts, arguments and tone have changed significantly. Shouldn’t the column on the Zocalo site at least indicate to the reader that substantial revisions have been made compared to the syndicated version?
• Mr. Mathews should have done another column altogether incorporating the changes above and acknowledging that, frankly, he didn’t have enough information before expressing his influential opinion. What is your response?
I didn’t hear back.
Two days later, I resent the email, this time to the general “CONTACT US” form:
Again, these are the only two ways I could find to contact anyone at the site. Heck, even opinion columnists for the New York Times publish a direct email address for readers to contact them.
My next step will be complain to Zocalo’s board of directors about its correction policies, its transparency, and its ability to interact with regular readers. Ultimately, Zocalo is an ASU Knowledge Enterprise, meaning that it is supported by Arizona State University. If you feel passionately about the Zocalo coverage, I encourage you to reach out to the board of directors and ASU, too.
I received many comments from readers of The Munro Review after I published my own rebuttal, both on the story itself and on social media. Here’s a sampling:
• Thank you, Donald. Joe Mathews’ trash op-ed is getting picked up by outlets all over the state; it troubles me greatly that it may be many people’s first entry point into the whole situation. It’s infuriating that one man could put out so much bad information to so many people so quickly. (Haley White)
• Saw that half-truth article in the Salinas Californian today and wondered where all the misinformation came from. I’m sharing your rebuttal with as many as I can. Thanks for speaking up. (Jean Eliceche)
• Something you touched on at the end about the Supreme Court is very true. The high court recently made what I call a back door ruling in a Minnesota case involving the Amish and septic systems. The local government wanted a farming community of Amish to install septic systems. The Amish objected saying their faith rejects modern technology. The case wound up in the high court’s lap a couple of weeks ago.
The justices kicked the case back to the lower courts, saying as they did that government can not regulate religious institutions except in extreme circumstances. One would think that protecting water from being contaminated would qualify but as far as the Supreme Court was concerned, that didn’t qualify.
The order clearly signaled the court’s view that ‘religious freedom’ pretty well trumps 99.9 percent of rules. This doesn’t bode well for the Tower District. (Dan Waterhouse)
• Save the Tower and bring in the church. (Robert Chris De Leon)
• Shame on the folks in charge of the Fresno Bee for not making sure the article in their paper reflected the truth about this controversy. As is often the case, I appreciate you for making sure people know the accurate roots of the situation, as well as the outgrowth and long-term impact on the Tower District and the City of Fresno. (Carole Smoot)