A PLATFORM FOR POTSHOTS
The full page advertisement entitled “An Open Letter to the North Shore Community” that appeared in the Gold Coast Gazette recently raises serious ethical issues concerning the responsibility of the press when it comes to the sale of advertising space – in particular with ads that make unsubstantiated claims and allegations against individuals, and which do not include the name or contact information for the ad sponsor.
The New York Times guidelines for selling advertising space ought to be the standard for all publications. In part, they read as follows: “We believe that the broad principles of freedom of the press confer on us an obligation to keep our advertising columns open to all points of view. Therefore, The New York Times accepts advertisements in which groups or individuals comment on public or controversial issues. We make no judgments on an advertiser’s arguments, factual assertions or conclusions. We accept advocacy/ opinion advertisements regardless of our editorial position on any given subject. We do not, however, accept advocacy advertisements that are attacks of a personal nature. . . . We do not verify, nor do we vouch for, statements of purported fact in advocacy/opinion advertisements. We reserve the right, however, to require documentation of factual claims when it is deemed necessary.”
Additionally, the Times requires that the sponsors of an ad put their names on it. “The sponsor’s name must be in the advertisement,” the guidelines continue. “If the advertiser is not known to our readers, the sponsor’s mailing address or telephone number or Web site address (that leads to direct contact with the advertiser) must appear in the advertisement.”
The guidelines are common sense. Any editor of a newspaper, online or in print, worth his salt, understands that a newspaper’s most fundamental responsibility is to inform, as well as to be a platform for free expression where conflicting viewpoints can engage each other, civilly we hope, so as to enlighten readers. Advertising space is one vehicle through which that can be done. Martin Luther King Jr.’ s brilliant Letter from Birmingham Jail was a response to a full page advertisement that was published in the Birmingham News entitled "A Call for Unity," sponsored by a group of Birmingham clergy who had the COURAGE TO PUT THEIR NAMES ON IT. Names are important – we teach our students to always consider sources of information – it allows readers to make judgments about the validity of statements, and to consider how bias might shape the opinion being expressed. That is why the Times and other reputable news organizations will not accept anonymous letters from readers or anonymous advertising or advertising by organizations which are not known to the average reader without contact information provided.
To not require a name on an opinion piece, whether it is an op-ed article, a letter, or an advertisement, is a huge disservice to not only readers, but to the community as a whole. It deprives the reader the opportunity to adequately question and seek further information concerning the statements made, and when appearing in a paper that serves a small community, it causes people to speculate about who was responsible for its authorship, unfairly casting suspicion on many community members who had nothing to do with it.
During the early 1950s, the scourge of McCarthyism debased our politics and resulted in the destruction of the reputations of many fine public servants - not because a demagogic junior Senator from Wisconsin made unsubstantiated claims - but because that junior Senator was given a platform by both his Senate colleagues and the media. But at least Joe McCarthy was willing to put his name on it, and so when he was exposed as a fraud, his fall was spectacular. Perhaps, that explains why the sponsors of the advertisement that appeared in this past week’s Gazette and a similar ad that appeared in that same paper in December wish to remain anonymous – but that’s just speculation.
And, oh yes - a full page ad can potentially bring in lots of revenue - but how much is a newspaper’s integrity worth? Is it $100? $500? A $1000? No - it’s as that credit card commercial from a few years ago stated – “priceless.”
Tim Madden and Cathy Elorriaga, authors of this editorial, submitted a nearly identical version as a “letter to the editor” for publication in the Gold Coast Gazette.
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