Public Comment

How Easy it Is to Get Scared

By Rinna B. Flohr
Wednesday March 18, 2009 - 06:03:00 PM

Thank you Mary Lou Van Deventer for the time you took to research and write your March 12 commentary. I too am an advertiser with the Daily Planet and received the letter from Jim Sinkinson asking me to drop my ads with the Planet, and if I didn’t that I and my business would be seen as a supporter of what Sinkinson claims are anti-Semitic views published in the paper. Of course, the reason I take out ads is to establish good rapport with the community and to encourage people to come to Expressions Gallery and support its artists and events. I do not want to be in a paper that is viewed as one-sided or biased or losing supporters. I don’t want to be involved in someone else’s problems. There was a form attached to withdraw from advertising for me to fill out. I paused … should I fill this out and send it in? 

I certainly began to worry. How large was this group led by Jim Sinkinson, and why he was out to “sink” the Berkeley Daily Planet, and would his next effort be to sink those who continued to do business with the Planet? Ads are supposed to improve business, not threaten a business’ existence, and it was clear that he was out to get the Planet with a lot of energy and effort that I, for one, would not want directed toward me, given that there are other places to advertise, and advertising is supposed to improve, not damage, advertisers. So it is easy to see how one might just fill out that form and send it in. Of course, one did sign a contract, and a contract is for a period of time and a certain number of issues, and if I withdrew, would the Planet then sue me for breach of contract or just require that I pay the full amount whether or not I continued? That thought gave me a bit of a pause. 

I started to think about the underlying issue of freedom of speech. The Planet states it supports this without censorship and without bias, regardless of their own opinions. If the readers who write in are all on one side, how does the paper remain unbiased? Doesn’t the paper get hundreds of letters each day, and doesn’t someone have to choose which get published? Isn’t there some selection and censorship, and if so, isn’t that by the paper? Maybe Mr. Sinkinson is right—it is not so much what the readers write, but what the paper chooses to publish and how often. I then wanted to have more information about what the original articles said and what was in the paper on the same day, and how many times theses issues were published. But who has time to do all that research? Thanks to Mary Lou Van Deventer, that research was done.  

I started thinking about other papers which publish far fewer letters from its readers. Should a paper select articles from both sides to publish on the same day? If so, isn’t that manipulating free speech? There isn’t always an opposite opinion submitted on the same day. Should a paper be obligated to present the frequency of the letters’ views in the frequency of local opinion or just as the letters are received? What about all the people who have a different view but don’t write in? Should they be writing more? If they did write in their opposing view, would the paper still be considered biased? Why doesn’t Mr. Sinkinson write a letter to the editor and voice his opposite opinion and change the balance instead of spending all this money, energy and effort to sink the paper? Obviously, he doesn’t have faith in freedom of speech and needs a more underhanded approach to get his point across. At this point I wanted everything to just go away. Who needs this extra complication? 

I called my advertising representative at the paper. I wanted to hear what they were doing and thinking about this. I wanted to know why I hadn’t received some letter from them presenting a different view. I wanted to know how big this group of people led by Mr. Sinkinson was, and whether the paper had dealt with him before? I wanted to know if there have been, if there might be, repercussions for advertisers who continued to publish ads. I wanted to know what their lawyer said about this. What protections would advertisers have against repercussions should they continue? I wanted to know how they retained free speech and an unbiased approach to news when they had to select from many letters? 

I learned that they publish about 75 percent of the letters they get, regardless of the subject matter or opinions of the readers. They do not publish unsigned letters and they eliminate obscene language. Other than that, they do not censor letters or select topics. They certainly don’t change what the person wrote, as did Mr. Sinkinson. When space is limited in the paper, they publish more letters online. 

While I do not like some of what I read in the Daily Planet and don’t agree with it, I do like to know that there is that position out there in the community, and I do understand that a reader’s view is not that of the paper. 

My conclusion is that I should not bail out. I like the freedom of speech approach of the paper and I do not like Mr. Sinkinson’s underhanded and threatening way of trying to sink it. I was scared, but I will stand up for freedom and for a paper that supports this right. I want to see the Daily Planet survive. But mostly, I want our freedom of expression to survive, and walking away is not the way to do that. 


Rinna B. Flohr is director of Expressions Gallery.