Free Speech Is not ‘Hate-Journalism’

By Becky O’Malley
Thursday October 09, 2008 - 09:32:00 AM

With friends like Blue Star PR, Israel doesn’t need enemies. The Berkeley Daily Planet made the grievous error of publishing a sympathetic story about local reaction to an incident in which graffiti were applied to a Blue Star poster advertising Israeli-Arab coexistence at a campus bus stop. Some of our readers wrote to us complaining that the story was too soft on Israel.  

We published their opinions. We have a policy of not censoring opinions just because they’re critical of Israeli politics. We’ve in good company: the New York Review of Books, the Nation, even Ha’aretz in Jerusalem have similar stances.  

Blue Star’s reaction? A toxic e-mail blast, reprinting (without the authors’ permission or ours) the opinions we published, larded with inflammatory headlines like “Ugly Anti-Semitism in Response to BlueStarPR Coexistence Poster.” (See it at www.berkeleydailyplanet.com/mcl/bluestar-pr.htm .) 

Even worse, they added, under the headline “Shocking Letters to the Editor of the Berkeley Daily Planet,” another unsigned “letter” which had never appeared in the Planet and never would, because we don’t print unsigned or anti-Semitic letters. We’d never seen it, let alone published it.  

Blast recipients—there were a lot of them—wrote knee-jerk outraged letters denouncing the Planet for anti-Semitism, incorporating the material which they’d gotten from Blue Star. 

We called and wrote to Blue Star, threatening legal action for libel. They promptly (and prudently) issued a grudging partial retraction, presumably on advice of counsel, but the damage is done.  

Blue Star’s effort to link the Berkeley Daily Planet with this spurious letter casts doubt on all the rest of their pro-Israel public relations endeavors. They couldn’t say where they’d gotten the phony letter or why they used it—I called to ask, and was told that “a student sent it.” Oh sure.  

More from the blast: “Contact The Berkeley Daily Planet and tell them what you think about their style of hate-journalism. Let them know they cannot intimidate or silence Israel’s supporters. Not even in Berkeley... And if you don’t mind, send us a copy of whatever you write.” 

This kind of e-mail campaign, like a lot of political advertising lately, crosses the line between public relations and propaganda. The contemporary term is “Swiftboating,” but the technique is old. It’s Leni Riefenstahl without the production values, and it’s Sarah Palin this week. It degrades political discourse.  

Reasonable people can and should be able to disagree about whether the current leaders in Israel are on the right path without a howling mob accusing critics of anti-Semitism.  

Another headline in the Blue Star hit piece was “Voices of Justice and Reason in the Daily Cal, East Bay Express,” under which was a pro-Israel op-ed that appeared in one of those publications, accompanied by this text: “The student newspaper, The Berkeley Cal, as well as the East Bay Express, another local community paper, did not embrace hate speech.” Yes, and neither did the Planet. 

Evidently Blue Star missed this quote in the Express: 

“Officer Andrew Frankel of the Berkeley PD reports that the initial incident was ‘investigated ... as a hate crime/vandalism,’ but that ‘there are no further investigative leads for us to follow. I am surprised,’ he adds, ‘that someone has been making the rounds trying to get as much press as possible out of the issue.” 

We weren’t as surprised as Officer Frankel, but we confess that we bit, just like all the other papers did. We published our own soft story. And now we’re paying for it. No good deed goes unpunished. 

Ironically, we’ve also received several literate, reasoned letters disagreeing with the critical opinions we ran last week. Some of them are in today’s issue, and others are on the web. It might surprise the Blue Star people to learn that within the Jewish community and even outside it there still are intelligent adults who can debate Israel’s policies without stooping to character assassination.  

None of this is new to us. For some years now a couple of misguided people who think of themselves as friends of Israel have been calling our advertisers and attacking the Daily Planet with similarly untrue charges. We hear about their activities from time to time from our loyal advertisers, often themselves Jewish, who courageously refuse to be fooled.  

On the bluestarpr.com website, we’re told that “BlueStarPR creates messages that humanize perceptions of Israel. We focus on the freedoms Israelis enjoy, and how these freedoms create a peaceful, prosperous country that respects all its citizens—Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Druze. Our most powerful campaigns have been built around the themes of freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, respect for women, and gay rights and environmental activism.” 

What lovely ideas! Here in the USA, many of us also believe in freedom of the press and freedom of speech. It’s too bad the authors of Blue Star’s e-mail blast campaign defaming the Planet don’t seem to have gotten the memo yet. 

How do such tactics hurt Israel? Well, just suppose they succeed in putting our paper or others of their targets out of business. Who would be left to report on the genuinely anti-Semitic incidents which do happen?  

And the authors should be aware that these days the world is full of reasonable people who think Israel’s leaders are making major mistakes in how they deal with Palestinians. Some of them are even Jewish, and some of them even live in Israel. Some of them write letters to the Planet, or to the New York Review, or even to Ha’aretz. If you silence voices like these, you won’t know what’s coming down on you until it’s too late to react. 

Such tactics don’t harm the Planet as much as they hurt Israel, but they do hurt us. Calling free speech “hate-journalism” is just plain wrong. Sending out the e-mail blast with the sensational headlines and the fabricated letter to a long list of recipients has done harm that will not easily be mitigated. 

According to the online theologians at jewishvirtuallibrary.org, “To atone for sins against another person, you must first seek reconciliation with that person, righting the wrongs you committed against them if possible. That must all be done before Yom Kippur.” 

This is being written on Wednesday, Oct. 8, the day before Yom Kippur. We wonder if by tomorrow, when the current issue goes into the boxes and on to the Internet, anyone at Blue Star will have sought any reconciliation with us or righted any wrongs against us. We hope so.