New York Newspapers that carried an advertising supplement in recent weeks containing a DVD critical of radical Muslims have faced complaints from readers and questions about whether newspapers should offer a platform to everyone willing to pay for distribution.
Although a few papers refused to carry the DVD, about 70 including The New York Times distributed it on the grounds that rejecting it would violate the sponsor's right to free speech. The decision generated letters, cancellations and even a protest.
The Clarion Fund, a nonprofit founded in 2006 to address "the most urgent threat of radical Islam," spent millions of dollars distributing the DVDs mostly in battleground election states. That targeting led to further outcry about the group's motives.
"This is definitely the most feedback that I've gotten to an ad," said Ted Vaden, public editor for The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. "It's among the heaviest reaction I've gotten to anything. The great majority of the reaction was negative."
Vaden said the paper received about 500 e-mail and phone messages and had some 50 cancellations. He said the paper may have sparked some of the complaints by writing a front-page story calling attention to "Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West," the DVD insert that critics have denounced as anti-Muslim propaganda.
The decision over running the ad was similar to what online services like Google Inc.'s YouTube and Yahoo Inc.'s Flickr face when they let users freely share provocative video or photos. They get complaints of promoting unpopular viewpoints when they try to uphold free-speech principles; they get complaints of censorship when they don't.
Newspapers generally insist on giving a platform to a variety of viewpoints, but readers who complained were largely critical.
"I cannot believe that I was sent the hate-inflaming, fear-mongering video disk 'Obsession' in my newspaper!" Margaret Lewis of Durham, N.C., wrote to The News & Observer. "What will you enclose next? KKK robes?"
Hard to reject
Kelly McBride, head of the ethics faculty at the journalism think tank Poynter Institute, said papers generally reject ads only if they promote illegal activity or might incite violence. The "Obsession" DVD, at most, makes people angry, she said.
"It's pretty hard to make an argument to reject it," she said. "It's hard to articulate a standard that would give you the opportunity to reject something like the 'Obsession' DVD but allow other types of political, religious or anti-religious speech."
The Clarion Fund, which has declined to identify all of its board members or the sources of its funding, is working with the Endowment for Middle East Truth on "The Obsession Project," which is to include research publications and issue forums.
Clarion Fund spokesman Gregory Ross said the group spent several million dollars in donations from individuals he would not name, and he said running the ad in swing states was a means of drawing media attention and not meant to influence the election's result, a move barred by federal tax law covering nonprofits.
"We found (newspapers were) the most economical and best way to get it out there," Ross said.
Dozens of people protested outside The Oregonian's offices on Monday, the morning after the Portland, Ore., newspaper carried the DVD. One said he canceled his subscription. Mayor Tom Potter had tried to persuade the paper not to run the ad.
Publisher Fred Stickel, who did not return phone calls from The Associated Press for comment, has said The Oregonian tries to keep its advertising channels open, regardless of whether the paper agrees with the sponsor's message.
But Elizabeth Brenner, the publisher of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, told reporters at the Milwaukee Press Club that based on complaints from its readers, the paper likely would not carry it again if faced with the same decision. She declined further comment to the AP, saying she didn't want to re-ignite the issue.
"Obsession," an hour-long movie that features graphic images of terrorism, video of anti-American speeches from Mideast television and comparisons with Nazi Germany, has been sent to about 28 million households through newspapers and direct mail.
Ross questioned whether many of the video's critics actually had seen it, and he noted that it carried a disclaimer saying it was not about the majority of Muslims, who are peaceful.
Some readers expressed support.
"It's refreshing to see something other than the 'politically correct' drivel most Americans seem to accept as fact," Steven Earle of Clifton, Colo., wrote to The Denver Post, which distributed a half million copies.
The News & Record of Greensboro, N.C., rejected the DVD, considering it inflammatory and hateful without contributing much educational value.
"We got a lot of e-mails from across the country applauding the decision," Editor John Robinson said, adding that most feedback for and against came from outside his paper's region.
The Detroit Free Press, The Plain Dealer of Cleveland and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch also declined to carry the ad.