Holocaust ad was pure propaganda

Last week, the Daily was presented with a dilemma that dozens of college papers across the country have had to deal with in the past several years: whether or not to publish paid ads from people espousing hateful or offensive ideas.
In this case, the Daily was asked to publish an advertising insert titled, “The Revisionist,” that contains a series of stories purporting to debunk the “myths” of the Holocaust.
The same insert was recently published by the University Chronicle, the student paper at St. Cloud State University, sparking protests on campus. Chronicle editors later apologized and said they had been misled about the nature of the insert.
The dilemma facing Daily managers was whether rejecting the ad would betray the paper’s essential mission to serve as an open forum for the exchange of ideas. On the other hand, by accepting the ad, would the Daily be offending readers while contributing virtually nothing to reasoned political debate?
The Daily, like many newspapers, lists as one of its principal goals the creation of a vehicle for readers to express ideas. It does this by publishing letters to the editor, guest columns and commentaries. But it also does this by publishing political or “issue” advertisements. Any person or group with something to say can buy space in the Daily to state their case.
Some newspapers take this function more seriously than others. With respect to issue ads, some papers publish nearly everything that comes through the door, creating a pure public forum. Even racist, hateful ads are given space, under the theory that all ideas are worthy of expression, even the most ignorant.
Most papers, including the Daily, are not so absolute. They provide open access to their pages, but they establish some boundaries for that expression.
But where are those boundaries? They are not defined in the Daily’s advertising-acceptance policy. And how should readers interpret the fact that other controversial ads, such as those promoting alcohol consumption and those containing sexually demeaning content, routinely make it into print?
Business Manager Marty Brown and Board of Directors President JoAnn Koob have justified publication of those ads on the grounds that the Daily is opposed to all censorship. As Koob said, “As part of an organization that heralds free speech, we are unwilling to take a stance that works as a restriction of that very freedom.”
Given the sweeping language used to justify publication of these other types of ads, some readers might reasonably be confused by the paper’s rejection of the “Revisionist” insert.
If, as Koob said, the Daily is “vehemently opposed to telling the students of this campus what they are and are not responsible enough to be exposed to,” why are students not responsible and intelligent enough to recognize the lunacy of the “Revisionist?”
This is a good question, to which there is a good answer.
The ad was rejected in this case because it was false and misleading. It was not rejected to shield students from unpleasant content, but to maintain a forum for debate that is not tainted by false facts.
As Director of Sales and Marketing Sam Rosen said, the insert was essentially propaganda. He’s right. The purpose of the insert was not merely to outline one group’s interpretation of the facts; its purpose was to actively deceive readers by persuading them to reject the established facts surrounding the Holocaust.
On that basis, the decision to reject the ad was justified.
Still, the Daily needs to establish a more explicit set of guidelines for assessing issue ads. One can imagine situations where someone might submit an ad that is equally offensive, but is more an expression of opinion and not corrupted by factual errors. How will the Daily handle those situations, and how will it rationalize the rejection of those ads while continuing to publish other ads — in the name of free expression — that are also offensive to people?
Also, in the absence of clear guidelines, not only will there be an appearance of arbitrariness, but the suspicion might arise among readers that the Daily’s definition of free expression is not fixed, but expands and contracts depending on the identity of the advertiser.
Erik Ugland’s columns appear alternate Mondays. He welcomes comments about his columns or The Minnesota Daily at [email protected]