By Will Harper
Berkeley Daily Planet reporter Judith Scherr abruptly resigned from the paper last week after a dispute with editor and owner, Becky O’Malley, over journalistic ethics.
“After 2.5 years of being insulted, berated and lied to by the Daily Planet’s executive editor – and having my stories distorted by the deletion of quotes from persons Becky O’Malley hates and the addition of her nasty remarks about such people – I have left the Planet,” Scherr said in an email she sent to friends last Thursday.
O’Malley says Scherr’s accusations are “almost 100% untrue.” “I don't really believe that journalists should sue for libel,” O’Malley said in an email to the Snitch, “but I'm mightily tempted, since these accusations are in fact defamatory on their face.”
In her email to friends last week, Scherr said she’d finally had enough of her boss after O’Malley assigned her a story about complaints over various groups’ endorsement processes in city elections. On Sept. 11, the Daily Planet published a story by Scherr with the headline, “Candidates Question Validity of Club, Union Endorsements.” The story quoted mayoral candidate Shirley Dean and City Council candidate Sophie Hahn grousing about their opponents stacking endorsement meetings of local political organizations with their supporters.
Scherr says that after the story came out, she learned that Hahn herself had been guilty of trying to stack the Wellstone Democratic Club’s endorsement meeting. Scherr said O’Malley knew this, but didn’t disclose the information to Scherr before the reporter wrote the Sept. 11 endorsement piece.
“When she assigned the story, O’Malley had in her possession a flyer written by Sophie Hahn in which Hahn urges her supporters to join the Wellstone Club in order to secure the club’s endorsement and offers to pick up Wellstone membership forms, dues and voter proxies,” Scherr wrote in her email last week.
“I could no longer be part of a newspaper with such a lack of journalistic integrity.”
The Snitch called Scherr to ask her why O’Malley didn’t share the information with her. “I can’t be sure of her motives,” Scherr said. “My assumption is that she’s supporting that person (Hahn).”
O'Malley denies concealing the information from Scherr. In fact, she says she told Scherr all about Hahn and her Wellstone Club efforts. O'Malley writes to us: "How did Judith miss all this? You tell me. It was openly discussed out loud in our very small newsroom in addition to whatever was said specifically to her." O'Malley added that she hadn't ever seen or spoken to Hahn before the flap over the endorsements.
O’Malley and her husband, Michael, bought the community paper in 2003. It had originally been launched in 1999 as a free daily, but now only publishes once a week.
Before buying the Daily Planet, O’Malley was a well-known activist in town who served on the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. The paper’s news coverage and editorial pages often reflect O’Malley’s anti-development sensibilities.
Scherr had been editor under the Daily Planet’s previous ownership, but left before the paper was sold. The O’Malleys initially lured Scherr back to be editor again, but Scherr changed her mind before the paper re-launched under the new ownership. According to a story in the Daily Californian at the time, Scherr “had initially been skeptical that Becky O'Malley would be able to separate her political philosophy from the paper's content.”
But Scherr says she eventually wound up returning to the Daily Planet as a reporter because she missed working in the newspaper business. She also acknowledged that for the most part she worked without interference from O’Malley.
O’Malley says she is contemplating writing a rebuttal to Scherr’s claims with the “correct facts.” If she does, we’ll link to it here.