11/04/04 — A bag of rage: Newspaper blasted for accepting an ad

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A bag of rage: Newspaper blasted for accepting an ad

It was an unusual advertisement, to be sure, and it must have seemed dynamic to people who disagreed with its message. It was that red, white and blue bag in which the News-Argus was delivered Monday. Oh, the fuss that it generated!

Here is the story:

The News-Argus was notified back in May that a lobbying organization was planning an unusual advertising strategy. Just before the election, the group would provide plastic bags to newspapers in several states, and the newspapers’ carriers could insert the papers into the bags before delivering them to subscribers’ homes. The ad would appear on the bags.

Naturally, most papers agreed to accept the advertising. After all, it is mostly the revenue from advertising that keeps newspapers in business.

In this case, the advertiser was the National Rifle Association, which planned to endorse a candidate for the U.S. Senate. It planned to put that candidate’s picture on the outside of the bag, along with text to urge people to vote for him. The outside text also identified the NRA as the sponsor of the ad.

At the time last spring when the advertising was planned, the NRA did not know which Senate candidate in North Carolina that it would endorse — Democrat Erskine Bowles or Republican Richard Burr. That was immaterial to the newspapers, because they accept advertising supporting all legitimate candidates.

The newspapers’ client this time was the NRA, not the candidate.

As it turned out, the candidate was Burr. The NRA selects its candidates on the basis of their support of the Second Amendment right to gun ownership, and the NRA felt that Burr excelled Bowles on that issue. So it was Burr whose picture was on the bag.

News-Argus officials were surprised by the response that the ad generated.

People called to charge — loudly and bitterly — that the newspaper showed bias by accepting the ad. Even an elected official called, saying he was doing so on behalf of his constituents, to ask whether the advertising was legal.

Not only was it legal, but the newspaper has a moral obligation to accept political advertising from both ends of the political spectrum, giving candidates equal opportunities to reach the readers. How could the paper explain refusing advertising from one candidate and accepting it from another?

The News-Argus is rather conservative on its editorial page, but that does not affect its responsibility to advertisers. Papers with liberal editorial pages accepted the NRA ad, as well as conservative papers.

When the advertising campaign was planned, the candidate who would benefit could just have well have been Bowles, for all the newspaper knew. And if the Bowles campaign, or any other, had asked for such advertising, they would have gotten it.

A law against airing a political viewpoint would be contrary to the American concept of free speech, and so would the capricious censorship of newspaper advertising.

Published in Editorials on November 4, 2004 11:42 AM