Dec 1 2009

Truth on Advertising

Photo Credit: New York Times

Photo Credit: New York Times

What standard for truth in advertising does the New York Times use in publishing advocacy ads? A double standard, an exchange of letters received by FAIR suggests.

The first letter was sent by Sam Husseini, media director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (and former FAIR staffer), when he saw an ad in the New York Times (9/17/97) placed by a group called Americans for a Safe Israel. The ad made a number of dubious claims–for example, it said that the Palestinian Authority had made “no arrests” of Hamas activists, directly contradicting a story the Times itself had published a week earlier (9/10/97), headlined “Islamic Militants in Gaza Picked up by Arafat Police.” Husseini wrote to the paper: “Our staffers recall that when they placed ads in the Times that were viewed as critical of Israel, they were given a great deal of scrutiny. Do you now employ a different set of standards?”

Husseini got a reply back from the New York Times’ manager of advertising acceptability, Robert P. Smith, who cited the First Amendment as the touchstone of the Times’ ad policy. “We do not vouch for the accuracy of factual assertions in [issue] advertisements,” he wrote. “We would not…attempt to suppress or modify an advertisement because others have expressed, or will express, an opposing view.”

Smith concluded: “All opinion advertisements are processed in a consistent manner so I do not understand your associates’ assertion that they were given a great deal of scrutiny when they submitted advertisements to the New York Times. I can, however, assure you that we do not, in your words, ‘now employ a different set of standards.’”

For a reality check, Husseini contacted Herb Chao Gunther of the Public Media Center, an agency that has probably written and placed more ads for progressive causes in the New York Times than anyone else. Here’s what Chao Gunther had to say:

Over the years, we have learned that every assertion of fact and every quote contained in our ads—especially ads the Times perceives to be anti-corporate or “controversial”—requires full documentation (usually a citation in a major newspaper or other publication of record confirming the fact or quote). Not only does the Times require documentation for all facts and quotes, they also assert the right to review all creative—headlines, captions, photos and even illustrations—and threaten to withhold our ads from publication unless their demands are satisfied.

Who’s telling the truth? Look at an ad from the Environmental Information Center, published in the New York Times on May 29, 1996, regarding the risks of endocrine-disrupting chemicals. The ad, as submitted, criticized Times reporter Gina Kolata, saying she “dismisses the widespread worries about endocrine disruption.” The Times objected to this wording, so the version that was published says that Kolata “reports the widespread worries.” The smoking gun: The paragraph with the changed language appears in the paper with a slightly different typeface.

If you’d like the New York Times to have a consistent standard when it comes to accepting advertising, write to publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., at 229 W. 43rd St., New York, NY 10036.