For the last six years, The Berkeley Daily Planet has published a freewheeling assortment of submissions from readers, who offer sharp-elbowed views on everything from raucous college parties (generally bad) to the war in Iraq (ditto).
But since March, that running commentary has been under attack by a small but vociferous group of critics who accuse the paper’s editor, Becky O’Malley, of publishing too many letters and other commentary pieces critical of Israel. Those accusations are the basis of a campaign to drive away the paper’s advertisers and a Web site that strongly suggests The Planet and its editor are anti-Semitic.
“We think that Ms. O’Malley is addicted to anti-Israel expression just as an alcoholic is to drinking,” Jim Sinkinson, who has led the campaign to discourage advertisers, wrote in an e-mail message. He is the publisher of Infocom Group, a media relations company. “If she wants to serve and please the East Bay Jewish community, she would be safer avoiding the subject entirely.”
Ms. O’Malley denies any personal or editorial bias, and bristles at the suggestion that she should not publish letters about Israel in a city like Berkeley, which has a sizable Jewish community and a populace — and City Council — that often weigh in on Middle East and international affairs. “Frankly, the term that crossed my mind was ‘protection racket,’ ” Ms. O’Malley said. “I think that is unusual to say the least that anybody would think that they could dictate a whole area of the world that is simply off limits for discussion.”
Whether right or wrong, Mr. Sinkinson’s campaign has left The Planet — a weekly already hammered by the recession — gasping for breath. Advertising sales revenue is down some 60 percent from last year, Ms. O’Malley says. In October, the paper trimmed its skeleton crew of full-time reporters to one from three, and has begun a fund-raising drive to keep publishing. Still, she says she has no intention of stopping the publication of submitted letters, citing a commitment to free speech that is a legacy of the city where the Free Speech Movement was born in the 1960s.
“I have the old-fashioned basic liberal thing of believing that the remedy for speech you don’t like is more speech,” said Ms. O’Malley, 69, a veteran local journalist who bought the paper in 2002 as a retirement project with her husband, Michael, now 72. “If somebody says something you don’t like, say what you think. And I felt it a privilege here in my middle age to be in a position to make that happen.”