An Open Letter to Our Advertisers and Readers

Thursday March 19, 2009 - 06:06:00 PM

In light of recent threats by a Mr. Jim Sinkinson to Daily Planet advertisers, we feel we should clarify the policies of the paper, its overall mission, and the nature of this campaign of intimidation. 

The Daily Planet is first and foremost a city government watchdog. Our three staff reporters cover city government, its meetings and policies. The Planet’s second mission is to provide a public forum for the wide-ranging views of its readers. Berkeley is a vibrant city and its citizens are not short of opinions. 

Consequently, it is only fitting that the community paper for the city that gave rise to the Free Speech Movement should have a lively and cacophonous opinion section. We run more letters and op-eds than most papers. Our policy is to run every signed, coherent letter from locals, whether those letters address local, national or international topics. There are exceptions of course: We do not publish obscene letters, we try not to publish letters that are part of organized letter-writing campaigns, nor can we publish each writer’s every submission. 

The volume and focus of letters we receive fluctuate according to the news. When we receive more letters, we publish more letters, adding more pages to the paper or publishing additional letters on our website. Commentary submissions are another story. Due to their length, we cannot publish all of them. We give priority to local writers writing on local topics, but also publish local writers on national and international topics. Only occasionally do we print letters and op-eds from writers beyond the East Bay. In the end, we publish perhaps 75 percent of our commentary submissions and about 90 percent of the letters we receive. 

The most controversial topic is by far the Israel-Palestine conflict. The vast majority of our submissions on the topic include some criticism of Israel. This leads some, like Mr. Sinkinson—who has been pressuring our advertisers to withdraw their support—to accuse the paper of anti-Semitism. This is an all-too-common technique by Israel’s more conservative partisans to stifle debate on the topic and to marginalize those who express even the mildest criticism of Israel. The Daily Planet is hardly alone in this regard. Newspapers large and small have been subject to these attacks. The Coastal Post, a small monthly newspaper in West Marin County, nearly closed its doors late last year as a result of these threats. Even Jimmy Carter, a man whose primary legacy as president was his tireless attempt to establish peace in the Middle East, earning him the respect of both Israelis and the Palestinians—not to mention the Nobel Peace Prize—has not been immune. Though many could find much to disagree with in his book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, Carter made clear his belief in the validity of the Jewish state yet also criticized Israel for its role in prolonging the conflict and for its treatment of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. For this he was branded an anti-Semite and even accused of having Nazi sympathies. 

Replace the name of the country involved and the absurdity becomes even more apparent. Is criticism of the United States anti-American? Was criticism of the Bush administration anti-Christian? The tactics of Jim Sinkinson and his partners (tactics that have much in common with McCarthyism and with neo-conservative attempts to brand dissidents as un-American) are attempts to marginalize and demonize valid opinions—opinions that circulate freely within Israel itself, where that nation’s policies enjoy anything but unanimous support. These tactics stem from the most extreme right-wing elements of Israel’s broad political spectrum. 

These attacks also grossly distort long-established newspaper traditions. The opinion section represents the opinions of readers, not of the staff or management of the paper. Newspapers that seek to establish a publication’s official opinion do so with unsigned editorials. The Daily Planet does not ordinarily publish unsigned editorials. Executive Editor Becky O’Malley signs her weekly editorials; they represent her opinion and hers alone. Only on a handful of occasions has she delved into the topic of the Middle East. 

This editorial is the first time all editors and the publisher are joining together to speak for the whole paper with one voice. 

The Planet has also published criticism of Israel in columns and in editorial cartoons. Again, these are signed opinion pieces and do not necessarily reflect the views of the paper. Conn Hallinan, a former journalism lecturer who attends synagogue with his Jewish wife and kids, writes a bi-monthly column on international issues, and his column often examines the Middle East. The paper has also published cartoons by Justin DeFreitas on the topic—only a dozen or so in six years, fewer than half of which criticized Israel or U.S. policies regarding Israel and Palestine. An honest appraisal of his body of work would show as many cartoons critical of Hamas, Fatah and the PLO as of Israel, and more that simply comment on the endless tragedy of it all.  

Needless to say, Mr. Sinkinson and his partners are selective in what they choose to highlight, paying no attention to the countless articles we have run on other Jewish topics, from news stories about anti-Semitic graffiti on the UC Berkeley campus to reviews of Jewish film and music festivals. The Daily Planet has published the work of many Jewish writers—staff, freelancers and contributors—with wide-ranging views on the Israel-Palestine conflict. 

The fact is that we receive almost no submissions that make a positive, proactive case for Israel. The only letters we receive from Israel supporters are in reaction to critics—letters that accuse those critics of bias and anti-Semitism. And we have printed many of these accusations over the years. In fact, the very people who accuse the paper of not representing their views have been given plenty of space in these pages to make their claims. But apparently it’s not enough. Rather than take advantage of the forum to present civil, reasoned arguments in defense of Israel’s policies, they have instead wielded accusations and threatened advertisers. 

Mr. Sinkinson claims to speak on behalf of Berkeley’s Jewish population. This is a false claim. Every time we print a letter accusing critics of Israel of anti-Semitism, we get a sizable backlash, with letters, phone calls and statements of support from Jews and gentiles alike who are disgusted with such shamelessly cynical tactics. 

The reality is that Mr. Sinkinson speaks for, as best we can tell, three or four locally based extremists who are eager to shut down the debate and the paper. His letter to our advertisers references a website that claims to document the paper’s anti-Semitism. This website is run by local businessman John Gertz, who makes his living by licensing the Zorro trademark. Mr. Gertz has used these pages on many occasions to accuse others of anti-Semitism. When readers, after four or five years worth of such accusations from Mr. Gertz, called him on it, he threatened to sue the paper for libel, though he later backed off after consulting his attorney. Informed that we would no longer publish him under the circumstances, Mr. Gertz launched a website of his own which Mr. Sinkinson is now using in his effort to see that the paper closes.  

When we received the commentary from our advertiser, Mary Lou Van Deventer, which documented what she had been able to discover about Mr. Sinkinson after receiving his threatening letter, we did a little research on our own. We discovered that he is the director of F.L.A.M.E. (Facts and Logic About the Middle East), a notorious organization with offices in West Oakland which speaks for the ultra-right-wing of Israeli politics. On Tuesday he signed a letter on the group’s website which claims full credit for the withdrawal of Charles Freeman, President Obama’s choice for heading the National Intelligence Council. The headline was “Efforts by FLAME and others succeed in rousting Charles Freeman—but now he condemns the ‘pro-Israel lobby’ for undue influence.” 

We have no problem with critics expressing their views of the Planet (or of the president’s appointments), either in our pages or on their own websites. In the words of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, “the remedy … is more speech, not enforced silence.” But this practice of making false and potentially libelous allegations, of accusing writers, readers and advertisers of the worst kind of prejudice, and of claiming to speak for the greater Jewish population of Berkeley, is dishonest, disingenuous and destructive. 

It is important to point out that although we have heard from several advertisers over the years that they have been subjected to this kind of intimidation, not one has ever reported any consequences. But if that were to happen, you can be sure the Daily Planet would make it known and would do everything it could to rally the community in defense. 

An ad in the Daily Planet merely demonstrates two things: the advertiser’s interest in getting their business before the eyes of readers, and their support for the concept and principles of free speech. We thank the numerous advertisers who have brought to our attention the ongoing effort of a few misguided people to suppress it. 


—The Editors and the Publisher