Obsession with Controversy

What are papers to do when fear, funding, and free speech collide?

Sometime around early June, about the time Barack Obama clinched the Democratic presidential nomination, an agent for a shadowy group called the Clarion Fund approached Newspaper Services of America, the nation’s biggest newspaper ad placement agency, with a proposition. Clarion wanted to use newspapers to distribute millions of copies of a DVD titled Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West, and provided a list of areas that it wanted to target, from Florida to Oregon. The job was huge, and with a quick turnaround, but the ad organization was excited about the possibilities of its first DVD distribution. For an industry battling for its life, this was an opportunity to tap into desperately needed revenue sources.

The insert, in this case, wasn’t your typical free sample of headache medicine, though. Obsession featured, among other scenes, Islamic clerics calling for jihad and crowds chanting “Death to America,” and it drew parallels between Islamic extremists and Nazi Germany, mixing footage of Nazi youth and children pledging to be suicide bombers. Did the newspapers know what they were getting themselves into? Advertising managers were provided a link to a Web site where they could watch a trailer. Had they wanted to dig further into the film’s origins, however, it would have been difficult: The Clarion Fund, at the time, revealed next to nothing about itself or the source of its funding. To discover that the group had links to a pro-Israel charity would have taken rigorous reporting—the kind normally done in newsrooms, rather than advertising offices. To the papers’ ad managers, the Clarion Fund was little more than a name and a Web site.

Still, when newspapers finally had a chance to view the film—as Obsession’s September delivery date approached—some began to have second thoughts. Some dailies backed out at the last minute. Most, however, accepted the DVD, and delivery began around the anniversary of the September 11 attacks, which happened also to be during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Newspaper Services of America placed the insert into the pages of just over 100 local newspapers, with distribution concentrated in political swing states like Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Nevada. Some 22 million DVDs were delivered, Gregory Ross, Clarion’s director of communications, said in an interview with CJR, at a total cost in the “multi-millions” of dollars.

Which, in terms of publicity, ended up being something of a steal for the Clarion Fund. The hardest-hitting investigative stories don’t generally generate as much reaction as Obsession did. Although some were pleased with the film, the general response to it was overwhelmingly negative—and vocal. Muslims in communities where the film was distributed were, not surprisingly, devastated. Many others were simply outraged. Long-time newspaper readers canceled their subscriptions. Protesters marched outside the offices of the Portland Oregonian. Newsrooms were deluged with angry e-mails and letters. “Would you have accepted an advertisement from the Ku Klux Klan alerting Americans to the dangers posed by black people?” Carl W. Ernst, a professor of religious studies at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, wrote in a letter to the News & Observer. “Or are you planning to accept money from those who would like to stir up hatred against immigrants from Mexico?”

Despite the negative publicity—or, rather, because of it—Clarion considers the newspaper distribution a complete success. “We were hoping we would be getting the media engaged,” Ross, who has done 100 media interviews in three weeks, says. “Most filmmakers would pay good money to have that kind of engagement.” Clarion also mailed out millions of copies of Obsession, but Ross agreed that the film wouldn’t have gotten nearly as much exposure had Clarion relied solely on the U.S. Postal Service.

Editors and publishers who distributed the film, meanwhile, defend their decisions to distribute it as principled ones. At the Grand Rapids Press in Michigan, editors said they were mollified by Obsession’s opening statement: “Most Muslims do not support terror. This is not a film about them.” Orage Quarles III, publisher of the Raleigh News & Observer, cited his duty as First Amendment steward. “We tend to shy away from censorship,” Quarles said. “In cases of controversial topics, if we err, we tend to do so on the side of freedom of speech.” Others echoed those sentiments. “Just as we print advertisements that rebut New York Times editorials, news articles or critical reviews, we print ads that differ from our editorial position. We do so in the belief that it is in the best interests of our readers for our pages to be as open as possible,” Diane McNulty, a spokeswoman for The New York Times, said via e-mail.

Yet many other dailies decided against this notion of a constitutional duty to accept Clarion’s advertising dollars. About sixty-five newspapers refused to distribute the DVD, Tim Rodriguez, a vice president at Newspaper Services of America, says. Those who refused the ad included the Detroit Free Press, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and the Greensboro News & Record, which decided that Obsession played on people’s fears and served no educational purpose. John Robinson, the News & Record’s editor, reminded readers, “Just because you can publish doesn’t mean you should.”

Many civic leaders agreed. Newspapers that distributed Obsession, they said, were lending their authority to a film critics saw as “hate media.” Portland’s mayor and community leaders pleaded with the Oregonian’s publisher not to distribute the DVD, to no avail. The Rev. Gary Percesepe, a Dayton minister, called the film’s release in swing states like Ohio “a cynical attempt to influence the presidential contest by fanning the flames of fear and prejudice against Muslims.” His sentiments seemed confirmed when, a few days after Obsession was distributed in Ohio, a 10-year-old Dayton girl was sprayed with a chemical at the local mosque.

The controversy behind the film—even more than its message—became the focus of the media coverage that followed Obsession’s distribution, both in print and online. So did, as a result, the organization behind it. Clarion Fund is a not-for-profit founded in Delaware in 2006 to distribute films like Obsession. Its founder, Raphael Shore, produced Obsession and also served as director of Aish HaTorah, an international charity founded in Jerusalem that provides Jewish education and is a staunch defender of Israel. (Aish HaTorah says it wasn’t involved in the film, however.) Obsession’s executive producer was credited as Peter Miers, but Shore told the Israeli daily Ha’aretz that Miers is an alias for a Canadian-American businessman. Ross, Clarion’s spokesman, wouldn’t identify its donors, media strategists, or vendors. Its tax return isn’t due until after the election. So one month after the film’s distribution, we still don’t know, specifically, who was behind Obsession.

To the extent that it’s engaging in transparency, Clarion Fund didn’t dispute that it concentrated its distribution of Obsession on political swing states like Ohio, but says it was trying to attract attention, not votes. “We chose areas where the press is congregated at the moment,” Ross says. “If we sent it to Hawaii and Maine, it would be under the radar.” Ross noted that the film was made in 2006 and doesn’t mention either candidate or political party. The group’s refusal to disclose its funding sources, however, isn’t reassuring. The Council of American Islamic Relations asked the Federal Elections Commission to investigate—since, as a 501(c)(3) charity, Clarion Fund is prohibited from influencing elections.

This wasn’t the first time that advertising caused so much trouble for newspapers. It was an ad that led to the landmark 1964 Supreme Court freedom of the press ruling in The New York Times v. Sullivan, which set the “actual malice” libel standard, allowing free and aggressive reporting of public officials to flourish. The case stemmed from an ad that claimed Alabama officials had engaged in a “wave of terror” against civil rights activists. In the case of Obsession’s distribution,” newspapers had left themselves open to charges that they had been used in a backdoor attempt to influence the presidential election by stoking fears about another wave of terror.

There’s no disputing that Obsession was inflammatory. But a deeper question went unanswered in all the controversy that resulted from the film: Was its message true? Were we, as a nation, ignoring the grave threat from radical Islam? Some readers thought so; others saw the film as a slick piece of propaganda. Newspapers left it up to subscribers to decide, and that abdication allowed Clarion Fund to bypass the editorial department and access customers directly. Small wonder there were so many hurt feelings.

Shortly after the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel distributed Obsession, publisher Betsy Brenner told the city’s press club that, in light of the negative reaction the film provoked from readers, she probably wouldn’t distribute it again. Still, in many ways, Obsession was a missed opportunity for newspapers. The film provided an opportunity to engage the community, to foster dialogue, and above all, to educate readers on the question of terrorism—an opportunity that got lost in the controversy surrounding it. Perhaps the Clarion Fund was being more innovative in its thinking about the role of newspapers than the papers themselves.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Seth Hettena , a former reporter and correspondent for The Associated Press, is a freelance writer based in San Diego.