todays other commentary, Ed Herman has laid waste the pretensions of pundits
bleating over the plight of poor abused David Horowitz that they are sincerely
concerned about free speech. But there is more to the situation…so let’s address
Setting aside mainstream
media hypocrisy, what is our best response to Horowitz’s ad entreaties? Should a
periodical run his ad or not? And what else ought to occur?
First, advertisements are not
speech. They are a commercial service wherein an audience is sold to a client.
Debates about ads are therefore miscast as a free speech issue.
Beyond free speech,
media access is also very important. But media access should not be a function
of the money that one has, and thus there should be no right to buy media
access. That is, in any desirable society
audiences should not be sold to anyone, in any manner. There
should be no paid ads at all. Nor should media have to prioritize
attracting audiences that advertisers will pay to “buy.” Nor should media have
to worry about including only content that paves the way for successful
advertising. But putting aside my preferences for the future of media, in the
current world what norms should apply to taking and rejecting ads?
Imagine the New York Times
rejecting an ad about ending a U.S. War on the grounds that the Times didn’t
like the ad’s content. Anti-war activists would be outraged. But why? I think it
is because the NY Times and other mainstream newspapers purport to
provide their audience with objective and neutrally assessed news and analysis.
They say they have no ideological norms guiding their choices. In not taking the
anti-war ad, however, they would be violating that claim (as they do daily on
every page, though that’s another matter, of course). An intensifying factor in
our anger at the Times in such a case would be that even if 75% of the
country was interested in the anti-war ad’s content and even if the ad was
demonstrably accurate, its critical viewpoint would likely only be able to get
into the Times, or into public visibility at all, by being a paid ad.
Thus, to cut off this option of media access would be to close the last door to
Now suppose instead that we
are talking about the same ad being submitted to The Nation (I can’t use
Z as an example, because we don’t take paid ads, only free ones). The Nation
would run such an ad, of course. But suppose the ad submitted to The Nation
favored the war. Would it be incumbent on The Nation to run that ad too?
It seems to me the answer is no. And the reason is because The Nation has
made no claim to its readership to be a neutral delivery system. Rather, The
Nation claims to have a point of view, and since the ad isn’t within the
editorial scope of their stated point of view, it would be a disservice to their
readers to provide it. In other words, the same norms should apply regarding ads
as apply regarding content.
The point is there is no
freedom of speech at stake in accepting or rejecting paid ads. It is not
incumbent on a periodical to take paid ads that it editorially doesn’t like on
free speech grounds. On the other hand, there are journalistic norms having to
do with access which may make it proper to take an ad despite not liking it,
whether we are talking about our hypothetical anti-war ad or about the ad from
Horowitz. The Times should take such ads, period, and clean up their
editorial pages and news to be broad and encompassing of diverse orientations,
too. The Nation should make both its editorial and its advertising
choices in accord with its stated priorities and agenda, accepting the anti-war
ad and rejecting the Horowitz ad. The New Republic might reasonably opt
to do the reverse. But how do these principles apply to a university newspaper?
Campus papers in most
instances probably do claim to provide a neutral and encompassing look at news
and events, being more like the Times in that respect, than like The
Nation. If they instead have a clearly stated editorial priority, that would
be very relevant. But campus papers also have limited space, skimpy resources,
and are meant to serve the campus community, and so have to make choices among
competing submissions. Solely at the level of journalistic principle, I wouldn’t
get too upset at a campus paper for rejecting Horowitz’s ad, or for running it.
However, Horowitz is of
course despicable and there is nothing that says that if one runs his ad one
can’t also run an editorial, or an article, or articles that address the same
topic. My own take is that the campus papers should have run the ad, mostly to
avoid the obvious trap that Horowitz had set, but also because it is marginally
the more principled act if they describe themselves as disinterested news
vehicles, and then they should also have run an editorial and a sidebar and
related articles not only on the specific topic of the ad, with many viewpoints
and including a piece like Herman’s, but also articles about Horowitz himself,
properly critical and caustic. This would have been an infinitely more
instructive response to his shenanigans, in my view.
What about students on the
campuses? I think pretty much the same thing goes. A good protest is to demand
of the papers that they run an analysis thoroughly debunking Horowitz’s
pernicious arguments, not just run the ad itself. Of course all this takes more
work, but it is worthwhile work.
So, I am a somewhat critical
of the editors who refused the ad, thereby falling into Horowitz’s trap and
arguably minimally violating a reasonable journalistic standard regarding ad
access, and I would be quite critical of any editor who accepted the ad but then
didn’t give space to the broader issues so as to debunk Horowitz and explore
important matters in constructive ways. All in all, though, I don’t think this
imbroglio was very significant compared to the infinite list of violations of
journalistic integrity, responsibility, and just plain old honesty that are
ubiquitous in mainstream journalism all over the country.
There is, regrettably,
however, one more thing to discuss. In the (online version of) Progressive
Magazine of March 18th, its editor, Matthew Rothschild prominently writes
that ads are indeed covered by free speech norms. More, he tells us that
periodicals shouldn’t editorially judge ad content and that, referring to the
editors who rejected Horowitz’s ad and to the students who demonstrated against
the papers who accepted it, “to resort to intimidation, to engage in gang
suppression of speech, is an old and discredited tactic of Brownshirts
everywhere.” Even supposing that one thought that to reject Horowitz’s ad or to
demonstrate against a paper accepting it was wrong, this is pretty amazing
rhetoric. “Brownshirts?” That’s the kind of nasty provocation and slander you’d
expect from the likes of Horowitz himself, surely not from Rothschild.
In any event, the reality is
that in this country we very much need massive and militant demonstrations
designed precisely to compel new mainstream media policies at the New York
Times, the Washington Post, all dailies, the TV networks, and so on
and so forth. And these demonstrations should precisely try to raise pressures
and costs to the people who run these institutions that not only intimidate
them, but that literally coerce them to alter their coverage of all manner of
events and issues. This doesn’t mean we bomb the news outlets or assassinate the
reporters who we disagree with; but it does mean using popular pressure to
influence coverage. What is Rothschild talking about when he tars demonstrating
against the choices of a media institution as being intrinsically tantamount to
Nazi rejection of free press or free speech? I hope he didn’t really intend to
communicate that because the reality is that to pressure media in our society is
not inherently anti-free speech, but can instead propel free speech, especially
regarding mainstream media writ large.
Rothschild also says that a
periodical should not see itself as making choices on behalf of its readers. He
says of the editors: “It’s not up to them to shield their readers from ideas
that may be `inflammatory` or to set up shop as censors who are empowered to
make decisions on which ads are `appropriate` and which are `inappropriate’.”
“They should not discriminate against advertisers on the basis of their
political beliefs. This is fundamental.”
inclined to say
about rejecting crap?, and leaving it at that.
I think I ought to clarify as well that a publisher is precisely an institution
which gathers or generates from among all possible material a subset that it
deems worthy of its readership. How does it decide what subset is worthy and
what subset isn’t? There will be various norms involved, depending on the type
of periodical and on its editorial criteria. But shouldn’t the same norms apply
inside each periodical for both its articles and its ads? Why should money (the
fee for ads) somehow trump other norms? And so, would Rothschild publish the
Horowitz ad, or one against abortion, or one for the elimination of child labor
laws …and even do so without comment…yet reject articles with the same agenda?
Or would Rothschild say, we have readers who expect from us a progressive slant
and approach to presenting news and analysis. They are entitled to that same
level of attention to their desires regarding who we sell them too. But
regardless of what Rothschild would himself say or decide, to opt for the latter
orientation is hardly to put on a Brown shirt.