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The Katzwer’s Out of the Bag: A New York Times dilemma: to print or not to print

Published: March 23, 2012
Section: Opinions

Newspapers and other news sources are in a self-reflective business; while we certainly cover the events, politics, etc., we love to cover other newspapers. This proclivity became very obvious during the News of the World scandal this past summer. Although the readers eventually became bored with the story, the newspapers kept writing articles and placing them prominently in the papers. The reason newspapers do this so much is that it provides newspapermen with the opportunity to ask themselves: What would I have done? And everyone loves a good internal argument.

Last week there was a mini-storm—perhaps a heavy rain—swirling around The New York Times and their advertisements. On March 9 the paper ran an ad bought by Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation. The atheist organization’s advertisement urged Catholics to turn from the Church, asking them: “Why send your children to parochial schools to be indoctrinated into the next generation of obedient donors and voters?” The advertisement went on and accompanied a cartoonish and unflattering portrayal of a bishop with a scathing critique of the Church, which, according to the ad, had “two decades of sex scandals involving preying priests, church complicity, collusion and cover-up going all the way to the top.”

Then, last week, in response to this ad, a woman named Pamela Gellar, a blogger and executive director of Stop Islamization of America, created a similar ad, this one featuring a cartoonish imam and an appeal to Muslims to abandon Islam. The ad featured statements like “[Why do] you keep identifying with the ideology that threatens liberty for women and menaces freedom by slaughtering, oppressing and subjugating non-Muslims?” and “Join those of us who put humanity above the vengeful, hateful and violent teachings of Islam’s ‘prophet.’”

This should not come as a surprise to you but the Times refused to print the ad even though they had already printed the previous anti-Catholicism ad and even though Gellar offered the same amount of money. New York Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy released a statement that read: “We have not made a decision not to publish the ad … We made a decision to postpone publishing it in light of recent events in Afghanistan, including the Koran burning and the alleged killings of Afghani civilians by a member of the U.S. military. It is our belief that fallout from running this ad now could put U.S. troops and civilians in the region in danger and we would like to avoid that.”

Obviously Fox News picked up on this story and will stop at nothing to criticize The New York Times, explaining how the newspaper has bowed to Islamist pressures and how it should have remained fair and printed Pamela Gellar’s advertisement.

Fox News is wrong.

Should the Times have printed the Freedom From Religion Foundation ad? It is difficult to say. Should the Times have printed Gellar’s ad? Definitely not. Had the Times gotten both ads at the same time, it would have been better not to have printed either, but they did not receive both at the same time and—contrary to popular myth—the Sulzbergers do not have a time machine.

Although Fox News is equating the two ads and Gellar based her ad off of the earlier ad, I see a huge difference in them. The first ad did not say anything negative about Catholicism as a religion; they criticized the institution of the Church. While the ad was using these things to draw people away from Catholicism, it does not say anything derogatory about the Holy Trinity, Communion, etc. It criticizes the Church’s complicity in the sexual abuse of young boys at the hands of clergymen. This is a fact and does not disparage the beliefs behind the institution.

Gellar’s ad on the other hand attacks Islam’s “ideology” and questions the validity of Muhammad as a prophet, having the gall to put the word prophet in quote marks. Gellar crossed a line and thankfully The New York Times recognized that.

Gellar is now fighting back and badmouthing the Times in as many news sources as she can. Gellar has said that she is especially angry by the Times’ response to her because they always hold themselves as a “gold standard” for journalism. She lamented that while she fervently believes in the First Amendment, the Times does not; she specifically cited the rights to free speech and a free press, two rights that newspapers should also hold dear.

This argument is fickle, however, because, first of all, the right to free speech means that she can stand up on a roof and shout vile obscenities to the world—as long as it does not incite violence, as Schenck v. United States established in 1919. It does not mean that she has the right to post her opinions anywhere she likes; if she spray-painted it on a wall, she would be arrested for vandalism. All papers reserve to right to edit and monitor their content. She has a blog; let her stick to that. As to the right to a free press, that right means that the government cannot tell the newspapers what they can and cannot print. Again, it does not mean that the Times has to be an open publication and allow anyone to print anything.

The New York Times looked at the advertisement she wanted to print and smartly realized that it could incite violence in an already unstable region that could result in deaths. Part of responsible journalism is considering things like this. Although advertisements do not express the view of the newspaper, they are still in the newspaper and the paper is responsible to a degree for what is printed in it. For example, in 1987 the magazine Soldier of Fortune was sued by a man named Norman Norwood after he was injured in a murder attempt; the two men who tried to kill him were hired via an advertisement in the magazine. Norwood and the magazine settled out of court after a U.S. District Court said that “gun for hire” ads were not covered under the First Amendment. There were later lawsuits for the magazine following more ambiguously worded ads that still incited violence and later juries agreed that publications should consider each advertisement and anticipate the possible reactions. Soldier of Fortune is more careful now.

The New York Times did the responsible thing in “postponing” Pamela Gellar’s advertisement. Advertisements are not inane space-fillers; people read them, as is proven by the fact that people still buy ads. Although Gellar based her ad off of the previous ad, its content was very different and the two cannot be placed on equal footing. And, as the two were very different, The New York Times could not respond to them in the same manner.