Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Ad Lib

By Jim Hanas

AUGUST 25, 1997:  An advertisement that appeared in the July 31st issue of The Memphis Flyer sparked a spate of letters and phone calls from readers criticizing the paper for running it. The ad -- for Love In Action, a private organization that practices religious counseling as a means ofhelping homosexuals "convert" to heterosexuality -- featured a picture of the group's executive director John Smid, beneath the quote, "I used to be a homosexual." The rest of the ad's message read, "There is hope for you."

The following week, a brief news story ran in the City Reporter section of the Flyer,quoting the paper's sales manager Chris Salinas. "We've accepted controversial advertising in the past," he said."[The ad] in no way mirrors our beliefs, and is strictly advertising for an organization."

That the ad does not mirror the editorial position of the Flyer is beyond question. In 1995, a Flyer cover story examined the controversy around so-called "conversion therapy," citing many critics of the practice.

While it is the policy of the paper not to print letters about advertisers -- a policy that prevents competing businesses from cutting at each other in the letters column -- Flyer editor Dennis Freeland says the letters about the ad were published because "of the ideological nature of the ad and because it was clear the responses weren't from competitors."

The letters raise an important question about what a media outlet's responsibility is when accepting advertising. Last month, The San Francisco Bay Guardian,an alternative weekly, was picketed by various anti-tobacco groups for carrying cigarette advertisements even while being critical of the tobacco industry. Of the protests, the Bay Guardian's executive editor, Tim Redmond, told the trade magazine Editor & Publisher, "The Bay Guardianhas always taken the position that anyone can buy space to sell products or advocate points of view, whether or not we agree with them. We keep a very clear line between editorial and advertising."

While that line might be clear to publishers, it's not always clear to their readers, as the protests about the Bay Guardian's "hypocrisy"and the letters to the Flyer about Smid's ad indicate.

"We have tried to keep as liberal an ad acceptance policy as humanly possible," says Flyerpublisher Kenneth Neill of the decision to run the ad, stressing that acceptence of an ad in no way implies editorial endorsement. "The First Amendment protects the right of people to say whatever views they think appropriate, and we have to think long and hard before making judgments about what ads we should and should not take."

Nonetheless, last week's Letters to the Editor column included two letters critical of the Flyer's decision to accept the ad. "If there is any hope for anyone, as the ad suggests, let's hope it's for The Memphis Flyer," read one. "I do not think that you understand the harm and pain that you cause when you put ads like this in your paper," said the other. Neill says the Flyer draws the line at illegality. "There are many members of our staff who are outspoken about our policy of accepting cigarette advertising," he says. "But as long as the sale of tobacco remains legal, it seems preposterous not to take the ads. I don't think there's anything illegal about what Love In Action is advertising."

Dr. Arnold Drake, president of the local chapter of Parents and Friends of Gays and Lesbians and an outspoken critic of conversion therapy, agrees. "My feeling is you should have accepted the ad," he says. "If the organization is legal, there's no reason for you not to accept their advertising."

But there is more than one school of thought on a publication's relationship to its advertising. In a debate that highlights the two sides, the non-profit anti-advertising magazine Adbusters has long been carrying on a campaign to raise funds to place an anti-tobacco advertisement in Harper's -- this, after trying to engage Harper's editor Lewis Lapham in a debate about the "ethical and moral ramifications" of running cigarette ads a few years back. Lapham did respond, albeit tersely, on a few occasions, most decisively by writing, " I don't think of advertising interms of a moral problem. ... Advertising is about taste and what the market will bear, not about ethics." (The Adbusters/Harpersdebate is available in its entirety at www.adbusters.org.)

It may be useful to remember this observation from the concluding paragraphs of the Flyer's cover story on "conversion therapy": "Thus far, there is little evidence to show conversion therapy can work," wrote staff writer Phil Campbell, "but organizations such as Love In Action persist because they continue to receive support."

After all, Smid says the ad has gotten results. "We've actually had a good response," he says,"a couple of people who have called for help and a couple of people who have come into our group."

He also says no media outlet he has approached has refused his advertisements and he is currently talking to Universal Outdoor about a Love In Action billboard.

It seems Lapham has at least this much right in his debate with Adbusters. Whatever else it is, advertising is a matter of "what the market will bear," and ads that get no response rarely run again.


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