Monday debate: Should a campus paper accept a Holocaust denial ad? (updated)

Last week’s Monday debate concerned the question of whether and how to moderate comments to online news articles and editorials, inspired by a case that took place over at the Badger Herald.  Over the course of that week the Herald was targeted by a well-known Holocaust denier with a paid advertisement which ended up running on the front page of the paper’s web site.  The paper decided not to pull the ad:

This paper did not want to give Smith or his foolish ideas any legitimacy, nor did it want to benefit financially from such a reprehensible idea. However, at the same time, I did not want to serve a paternalistic role, telling this campus that these thoughts are so painful and wrong that to even discuss them would be dangerous.

After wrestling with the consequences of my actions and the principles on which this paper is based, I came to the conclusion that I cannot justify the removal of this ad.

Since then, the issue has generated nearly 100 online comments over at the Badger Herald, and lots of behind-the-scenes discussion among faculty and staff here at SJMC.

The issue in question is not the legal right of an independent campus newspaper to accept any advertising it likes.  The issue is rather one of media ethics.  Is a newspaper obligated to accept any and all advertisements which reach its inbox?  Should a media outlet avoid accepting an ad which both its editorial or journalistic judgement tells it is blatantly false?  Is constructing any policy to potentially refuse advertising of any nature a slipperly slope to censorship?  Is it simply the case that “the antidote to objectionable speech is more speech,” or are there important power relations at work in these cases?

The Anti-Defamation League has confronted this issue on college campuses many times.  Their sourcebook on Fighting Holocaust Denial in Campus Newspaper Advertisements focuses directly on the organization which placed the ad in the Badger Herald, and describes how three other university newspapers dealt with these challenges last year.  They state their ethical position on the issue clearly:

Although campus media are a natural venue for the expression of ideas — even controversial ideas — editors should be aware that privately owned publications have editorial autonomy to decide what will and will not be published. Courts generally view student newspapers (even those at public schools) as private when student editors, and not school administrators, make decisions about content and advertising policies. Campus newspapers are under no legal or moral obligation to accept unsolicited articles or advertising containing false, misleading and/or defamatory statements.

Abstract ethics need to be made relevant to, and sometimes held accountable by, personal experiences.  Over the course of the week I received a detailed and well-written email from a former student concerning this debate.  The student kindly agreed to let me excerpt from the email for the purposes of opening up the discussion on media ethics here at Mediated Communication:

Hey Professor Downey,

I wanted to email you regarding the Badger Herald’s decision to post an advertisement for CODOH (“Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust”). Yesterday, I received an email from Greg Steinberger, Hillel director, regarding the advertisement and went in to his office today to learn more about the situation.

During the day, I looked at the actual advertising copy on the Herald’s site plus visited Bradley Smith’s blog to gain more information about why he placed the advertisement. Although I found myself drawn into this situation, it was not until two hours ago that my interest evolved into discomfort. I went to Smtih’s blog again and found a video titled “The Badger Herald is Not Alone”. To me, this video doesn’t advocate free speech but instead promotes the message anti-Semitism on campus.

Viewing this situation, I feel that the Badger Herald’s actions impacted me on three different levels (in random order):

• as a UW-Madison student
• as a Jewish college student
• as a student within the School of Journalism and Mass Communication

First, I feel that the Herald’s choice to run the advertisement acted as a gateway to bring anti-Semitism, masked as an attempt to “promote an open forum”, to our campus. I am uncomfortable with the idea that some student, browsing the Internet in his or her dorm room, may stumble upon this material and be drawn into a movement that is harmful, discriminatory, and simply “wrong.”

Being a Jewish student, I am… well, I can’t think of a better term to say this… pissed off that the Herald would run such an ad. I’ve visited Poland and walked through concentration camps, viewing the Zyklon B stains and fingernail scratches on the walls of gas chambers. Looking deeper into his blog, you can find that Smith makes statements that are anti-Semitic in nature. He states in a January 2009 post, “Jewish greed, Jewish monomaniacal self-regard, joined with the self-defeating and degenerate acquiescence of both by non-Jews throughout the American political system, media, and academic worlds, ensure that the taboo against questioning any of this murderous nonsense is enforced.” I feel uncomfortable, as as young Jewish adult,  that the Badger Herald placed an ad for an individual who, at the core of his work, is anti-Semitic.

Finally, I am appalled that the Herald has a low standard of ethics to place such an advertisement.  I support free speech, the value of muckraking, investigating controversy, and the efforts to promote public debate. As a student in the SJMC, I’ve been taught the absolute and utmost importance of ethics. However, I feel that the Herald did not act in a moral fashion when placing this ad. Many students within the SJMC work at the Badger Herald and I feel that their actions reflect poorly on the education of the J School.

I just wanted to let you know my thoughts and concerns on this situation.

The School of Journalism & Mass Communication has no formal sponsorship or supervisory role over any of the student media on campus.  However, I know that the case will be raised in more than one SJMC class this week as a “teachable moment.”   I figured our blog might be just the place for our graduate and undergraduate students to confront and discuss questions like these, carefully and caringly, so if you feel like adding a well-considered comment below, please do.  (All submissions will be moderated, just as I would moderate a classroom discussion.)

Late update 2010-03-02: Both the Daily Cardinal and Chancellor Martin have now added their voices to this debate, each in different ways.

6 thoughts on “Monday debate: Should a campus paper accept a Holocaust denial ad? (updated)

  1. Seriously??
    Let’s suppose an organization that advocates child pornography decided it wanted to raise its profile by buying an ad in the Badger Herald. Would the publication feel obligated to run the ad, rather than taking a “paternalistic role,” telling the public that child pornography is wrong? How is the holocaust denial ad any different?
    As an ethical matter, this isn’t even remotely a close call.
    There is no obligation–journalistically, ethically or even financially–for a news organization to accept an ad that it knows to be false or objectionable. In its journalism, the Herald’s only obligation is to report the truth as its reporters and editors see it. In its business affairs, the Herald has an obligation to sell advertising, but not to sell its soul. No extensive policy is required. If the Herald’s editors believed the ad’s content was “foolish” and not deserving of legitimacy, they shouldn’t have given it legitimacy by running it. The holocaust deniers have no more and no less of a right to ad space or even coverage in the Herald than Hillel does. But the Herald, like any news organization, has an absolute right to control the content of its news coverage and its advertising. In running a blatantly false and admittedly “foolish” ad, the Herald abused its rights, ignored its obligations, and in the process helped advance a reprehensible agenda.
    And THAT is a teachable moment.

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  3. One thing I find disturbing in this whole saga is unrelated to the ad itself.

    From what I understand, the Badger Herald’s editor-in-chief is being left to explain the paper’s actions. This is an advertising issue, not an editorial issue. The editorial staff does not sell ads and should certainly not be expected to defend a business decision by the paper. Advertising is the responsibility of the publisher. I honestly feel bad for the editor, since it appears he is taking nearly all the heat when it was the advertising sales staff, reporting up to the publisher, that allowed this to happen. I get the feeling the publisher is shirking his responsibilities, as he is the person who should be front and center in explaining the paper’s position. That is the role of the publisher.

    Content is the responsibility of the journalists. Running the business is the job of the publisher. Publisher FAIL.

  4. Two weeks after originally posting on this issue, the debate continues. The Badger Herald today reaffirmed their stance to keep the advertisement up for the duration of its paid run, but also detailed some clear changes in process and policy in an “Open Letter” to the campus community.

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