There's an interesting kerfuffle going on between the state's newspaper of record and Portland's political power brokers. Apparently the Portland Schools campaign planned to buy an ad in The Oregonian that contained an excerpt from an Oregonian editorial describing the need for school renovations.
However, The Oregonian's editorial board has come out against the school construction bond measure on May's ballot (while supporting the operating levy). According to The Oregonian's reporting, the newspaper "requested the addition of clarifying words in small print next to The Oregonian's logo: 'The Oregonian has not endorsed the Portland School Bond.'"
Understandably the campaign turned this down: "[school campaign consultant] Mark Wiener... said it was absurd for the newspaper to ask the campaign to pay for an ad that included 'a line that would make it less likely that people would support the bond.'" And, for good measure, the campaign called the decision to not run the ad without the clarification "censorship."
The Oregonian's publisher Chris Anderson wonders if the fight was picked on purpose, to make The Oregonian look bad - a charge the campaign denies. Anderson notes the ad buy was small ($1300) and there's past bad blood from Measure 66 and 67 battles.
It's an interesting situation and ethical problem, because the newspaper is both a medium for political speech and advertising as well as a business with publishers and editors who have their own political views. There's a third dimension, where the newspaper reports on the bond measure, divorced from its editorial stance and business needs for advertising income. And now the newspaper is reporting on the controversy itself. It's a mini-course in journalism ethics.
I can see both sides of the disagreement. I've seen enough campaign literature to know it's not uncommon for candidates to quote positive things newspapers or opinion leaders say about them, even if they didn't win the endorsement. As advocates, we highlight the words and points that best make our case. The print ad accurately quotes a recent editorial and never explicitly states The Oregonian supports the measure. The advertisement trusts voters to read the language precisely, and informs them The Oregonian believes there are serious problems. It asks voters to draw their own conclusions based on the information given. Caveat suffragator, voter beware, one might say.
On the other hand, we all know readers don't parse things closely, and could easily make the mental leap to believe there's an endorsement. That's what campaigns expect people to do, knowing they spend mere seconds digesting campaign literature and ads before moving on. In this case, the ad has a prominent Oregonian logo, highlights various words from their editorial including: "Portland is long overdue to reinvest in its historic school buildings," and "The list is daunting, but the work is essential." Placed in the context it is, casual readers would understandably conclude The Oregonian was calling for support of the bond measure.
Does the newspaper have a right to protect its name, and make sure the views of its editors aren't misconstrued in its own pages? Or do they have a duty to run political speech ads, without regard to content, even if the ads may mislead voters?
Janie Har of The Oregonian talked to various journalism leaders:
"The context of the use of the editorial in the ad leaves the clear impression that the paper endorsed the bond," [Tim] Gleason, [dean of the University of Oregon's journalism school] said. "Given that the paper did not endorse it, requesting a clarification before publishing is reasonable."
Bill Reader, associate professor at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University, specializes in journalism ethics. "The use of your nameplate? That's misrepresenting."
I'm with The Oregonian and the various journalism professors on this. The schools campaign can buy an ad and make their case. But the measure doesn't have the support of The Oregonian's editors, and The Oregonian has the right to ensure their newspaper doesn't run ads leading readers to think it does. It's similar to the requirement for ads that look like newspaper reporting include the statement, "This is a paid advertisement."
The Oregonian was okay with the quotation of a past editorial, and the use of their logo, if the ad included a short disclaimer. That seems like a reasonable request, which would more fully inform voters while adding some assurance the newspaper's views wouldn't be being misunderstood. And for some voters, of course, The Oregonian's opposition is even more reason to vote for the school bond. The clarification may mean the ad isn't worth buying, but there are plenty of other outlets to reach voters, outlets the campaign has heavily invested in.
In the end, the schools campaign ran their ad in the Willamette Week, which endorsed both measures.