An Interesting Kerfuffle Over an Ad

Evan Manvel

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?

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.

Coverage from Willamette Week. Link to a PDF of the ad in question.

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    Having worked as a journalist for 10-years, this is most likely an example of the paper concerned about pissing off advertisers (probably significant advertisers) who opposed 66/67 and would pull ads if the Oregonian showed support for another tax.

    Unfortunately, this kind of stuff happens all the time. When I was in TV, I can't tell you how many times sales people would get angry about stories airing that had any negative implication for their clients.

    In large part, the news business is not in the business of informing - but making a profit.

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      While not disagreeing with the principle that you state, it doesn't fit this situation. We are talking about a paid ad. Lot's of paid political ads do not reflect a newspaper's editorial policy. The advertisers care about the editorial policy. Furthermore, the advertisers are not united in opposition to these measures at all.

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    Thanks for the insider's view - yes, this stuff happens all the time.

    There's certainly a difficulty that stems from the overlap of serving as a public forum and needing to sell ads and stay in business. Reporters need paychecks. It's another reminder why we're smart to publicly fund some news outlets like NPR.

    But I haven't seen the corporate community come out strongly against the construction bond measure. Many are in support, and many will end up with construction contracts. For example, the Portland Business Alliance, which gave $166,000+ to the No on 66/67 campaign, is supporting the measures.

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    Interesting. Then it seems rather odd that the Oregonian would have a problem. Especially since the Portland Schools Campaign could write an editorial in support of the tax.

    And I think most readers are smart enough to know that ads typically reflect the views of the person(s) who purchased them, not the editorial board.

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    How can the Oregonian possibly look any worse?

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      Patience, Bill, patience. Based on the past decade's descent, they will soon look even worse than they do now.

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    (i>The Oregonian ran ads against Measures 66 and 67 that strongly (and wrongly) implied that President Obama was against the measures. Chris Anderson didn't have any problem with spreading that patent lie on behalf of the "no" campaign.

    I know I will be watching future political ads for candidates and measures to see if they really are just protecting their editorial position or running an agenda. I seem to recall numerous political ads where candidates use pull quotes even when the bottom line of the editorial position is for the other guy.

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      My sense isn't that The Oregonian wants to look at every claim in every ad. As you note, that would be very difficult.

      My sense is that they want to ensure when their own editorial views are portrayed that they're portrayed accurately.

      As you say, it'll be interesting to put this in context when future advertisements appear.

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      I'll be looking for the next time there's an ad for a movie that says the Oregonian's critic called it "amazing!" when the real quote was "It's amazing that crap this bad gets greenlighted in Hollywood", or something along those lines.

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    Excuse me? Is this the same Oregonian that placed a political ad on their Sunday wrap, complete with logo, that looked as if the paper was responsible for it?

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