Readers were upset that The Post recently ran a print advertisement from followers of Warren S. Jeffs, the imprisoned polygamist and leader of a sect that broke away from the Mormons. They also didn’t like online ads from the Church of Scientology.
The Jeffs-inspired ad, less than a quarter-page, appeared on page A13 of The Post’s Jan. 22 edition. In its hard-to-decipher language, it proclaimed divine revelations to Jeffs, president of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and advertised how to send for Jeffs’s books.
The Jeffs ad appeared the same day as an Associated Press article on page A7 about how the sect leader was still managing to lead his flock from prison.
Readers didn’t like running ads from a group whose leader was convicted of sexual assault against underage girls whom he took as wives.
Darrel Salisbury, of Lorton, Va., wrote this to me: “On page A7, 22 January 2012, there is an article about Warren S. Jeffs, convicted child molester, still ruling the bunch of pedophiles known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, while serving life plus 20 years in prison. On page A13, there is a fund-raising advertisement for that same organization. So, now we know how low The Washington Post will stoop to make a buck?”
The Post wasn’t the only newspaper running the ads. According to an AP story that ran online in The Post, the ad ran in the New York Times, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the Salt Lake Tribune and other newspapers. The Post does not disclose what its advertisers pay for ads, but AP noted this: “A Washington Post ad sales representative tells the Associated Press a quarter-page ad in the newspaper costs about $10,000.” The Jeffs ad was about a sixth of a page.
The ads for the Church of Scientology appear on some news e-mails The Post sends out, and online on The Post’s “right rail,” the stack of ads and features on the right-hand side of Web site pages, as an Internet link advertisement.
The most recent one I saw said this: “Scientology is across six continents, growing faster today than anytime in history.” Readers can click on a link and go to the Scientology Web page that explains “What is Scientology?”
Kathleen Gross, a reader from Michigan, wrote: “I’m very dismayed that the Post e-mails contain prominent ads for Scientology. I guess their money is green, but they are known for outrageous misrepresentation of facts and abuse of their followers and their critics. The Post should have some control over advertisers, especially one as offensive as Scientology. Would you run an ad for the Ku Klux Klan?”
I don’t think The Post would run ads from the Ku Klux Klan. Ads from FLDS and from the Church of Scientology are considered “advocacy” ads, much like ads that corporations or coalitions of interest groups run to argue for or against bills in Congress, and which appear frequently in The Post.
Kris Coratti, director of communications for The Post, explained the ad policy this way: “We give wide latitude to people and groups to have their say in advertisements. If the ads are not illegal, false, advocating illegal actions or clearly not in keeping with standards of taste, we try not to place limits on speech or content even if we do not like the ad or agree with it.”
The FLDS ad does not mention polygamy; it does advertise books that can be ordered, and it does purport that Jeffs speaks for God. The Scientology ads are more promotional or informational. The Scientology-sponsored link appears on The Post Web site via a third-party ad network, meaning the network sells its ad service to The Post; The Post does not select which links appear.
Newspapers and media companies, under the First Amendment, have broad rights to run, or refuse, advertising as long as it is not false and does not advocate illegal actions, but companies have to be consistent in how they apply their policies, especially regarding political or advocacy speech.
I don’t particularly like these ads, and The Post would probably be on safe legal ground to reject them, but I also think that speech should be free and unfettered, even in ads from people we may not like.
I also understand that The Post needs every revenue dollar it can get right now, and that weighs heavily on the people who run this publication, and on those who sell advertising space.