The Berkeley Daily Planet: A Personal Obituary 

A former longtime reporter details the rise and fall of Berkeley's hometown newspaper.

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One of her traits is a love of boisterous encounters, and, to a degree I've never seen before, she opened the pages of her paper to wide-ranging discussion of contentious issues by a broad spectrum of the community. She also espouses left-liberal politics, another potential snag with attracting advertisers.

O'Malley's never been short of opinions herself, and her editorial pages featured often-cantankerous letters and commentaries written by some very smart — and sometimes daft — people. And that's what landed the paper in its penultimate struggle.

Headlined "Zionist Crimes in Lebanon," a 701-word commentary appearing in the Planet on August 8, 2006, ignited a firestorm still smoldering today.

Iranian-born Kurosh Arianpour, a former Berkeley resident and Cal student, had e-mailed the submission from India, where he was continuing his education. Arianpour's argument, triggered by the latest round of battles between Israel and rocket-firing militants on the Lebanese border, espoused a classic trope of 20th-century anti-Jewish bigotry, contending that Jews were hated because of "their racist attitude that they are the 'Chosen People.' Because of this attitude, they do wrong to other people to the point that others turn against them, namely, become anti-Semite if you will. Since they think they are the Chosen People they can murder Lebanese and Palestinian children at will."

Two joint letters to the editor quickly followed. Nine rabbis and the leaders of fourteen Jewish community groups signed the first "to express our pain and disappointment at your use of your newspaper for promoting hatred against Jews." They called Arianpour's commentary "not only hurtful and hateful but dangerous."

The second letter, written by Rabbi Ferenc Raj of Berkeley's Congregation Beth El, called the commentary an example of racism that "violates all that our city and region stands for" and called for a public apology from Becky O'Malley. Accompanying the rabbi's signature were those of the mayors of Oakland, Berkeley, and Emeryville, Assemblywoman Loni Hancock, state Senator Don Perata, and four members of the Berkeley City Council.

But the real damage came from a threefold campaign — web site, direct mail, and in-person visits — which aimed to strip the Planet of advertising, credibility, and support by branding the paper as an anti-Semitic, violence-provoking left-wing rag. The three leading provocateurs, all militant Zionists already angered by the paper's role as a forum for pro-Palestinian voices, intensified their attacks in 2009, describing themselves as representatives of three distinct organizations.

John Gertz, a producer who markets the Zorro brand inherited from his father, launched, a strident and provocative web site designed, he said, to promote the newspaper's reform.

Jim Sinkinson, an Oakland-based publicist and publisher, sent repeated mailings to advertisers, warning them that continued support of an anti-Semitic newspaper would cost them their Jewish and right-thinking clientele. He even included a stamped postcard they could send the Planet to cancel their ad contracts. Sinkinson, who earns his livelihood teaching public relations types how to spin the press, signed his letters as a representative of East Bay Citizens for Journalist Responsibility, a group never heard from before or in any other context.

Dan Spitzer, a travel writer and frequent writer of letters to the editor of Bay Area papers, made in-store visits, carrying the same message, this time on behalf of the Israel Action Committee of the East Bay, the one organization that did antedate the attacks.

After I wrote extensively about the campaign, I was attacked in turn, even accused of conspiring to plot a violent attack on one of the groups. As Gertz wrote on his web site: "Reporter Richard Brenneman certainly seems to be acting like a guru crazed cultist. We believe that this is in keeping with his personal history. We believe that he may even have sent a coded message to fellow cultists calling for violence against us (a kind of Chauncey Bailey/Your Black Muslim bakery situation in reverse, where it is the newspaper that goes on the attack). For security purposes. We cannot give you details at this time, but his action caused us to seek police protection."

Suffice it to say that the police never even bothered to call me.

Simultaneous with the attack, the economy was tanking. The paper lost one of its mainstay advertisers when Elephant Pharmacy went bust in February 2009, and another when Berkeley's Green Motors closed late last year.

Business closings and lost advertising have killed scores of papers in recent years as readers migrated to the online world and publishers struggled to find ways to ways to recoup them on the Internet, and those impacts were magnified at the Planet, which had never made a profit. In addition, city code enforcement officers were cracking down on graffiti-sprayed newsracks, levying fines and ordering removal of multi-paper "pods" on the city's streets — vital for distribution of free papers, including the East Bay Express.

The culminating blow came to light after two reporters were laid off last October, when the paper learned that its outside accounting firm had been underreporting payrolls to the state, and apparently siphoning off payroll taxes, leaving the newspaper with a tax liability that could run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. O'Malley announced the fraud in the February 4 edition, reporting that payroll-processing firm "Clickbooks had been cashing our checks, all right, but they had been significantly underpaying the taxes and pocketing the difference. We are now engaged in the painful process of trying to figure out how much we still owe the various government tax collectors." The Planet wasn't the only victim of the fraud, O'Malley said, and the total loss to up to 100 local businesses could run into the millions.

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