We've long accepted as a truism that freedom of the press exists mostly
for those who can afford to buy one.
But we assumed that a corollary was that the freedom extended as well to
those who could afford to rent one, and buy ads.
That may not be so.
Consider the recent experience of Forest Ethics, a Berkeley,
California-based advocacy group that works to protect the ancient
rainforests of British Columbia and endangered forests of North America by
redirecting U.S. markets toward ecologically sound alternatives.
Campaigns run by coalitions that include Forest Ethics, Rainforest Action
Network American Lands Alliance, Forest Action Network, Student
Environmental Action Coalition, Earth First!, Greenpeace, Sierra Club, the
Natural Resources Defense Council and many others have pressured Home
Depot and other major wood sellers to stop selling wood products from
old-growth forests. As a result, the timber industry is on the run.
The recalcitrant members of the American Forest & Paper Association have
responded to forest activists' successful campaigns and the shifting
market for wood by creating their own certification system, the
Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI). Forest campaigners say SFI is a
sham, and are urging wood buyers to give preference to wood certified by
the Forest Stewardship Council, an independent organization.
To highlight its concerns with the SFI, Forest Ethics decided to place an
advertisement in the Seattle Times during the Green Building Conference, a
recent meeting held in Seattle that attracted major U.S. homebuilders.
The group's proposed ad mocked the SFI's claim to represent a "bold
approach to sustainable forest management" with a picture of an ancient
temperate rainforest clearcut in British Columbia by the Interfor company,
which SFI recently certified as "sustainable." Asking whether SFI was
promoting green wood or a greenwash, the Forest Ethics ad also criticized
the SFI certification of Boise Cascade. "SFI's endorsement of Boise
Cascade, the largest logger of old growth in the U.S., is further evidence
of SFI's toothless standards," the ad's text read.
The Seattle Times refused to run the ad.
The sticking point, according to Todd Paglia, Forest Ethics campaigns
director, was the mention of Interfor and Boise Cascade.
As an aside, we should mention that we are generally not fans of issue
advertisements, which we think far too often drain advocacy groups'
budgets for little payback, and are a poor substitute for grassroots
organizing. But the ads tend to be most effective when used as part of a
larger campaign and with the specific purpose of singling out and shaming
a particular company or corporate executive.
That is exactly what Forest Ethics intended. Paglia says the Seattle Times
offered that the group could run the ad so long as corporations were not
mentioned by name. But "at that point, the ad is worthless," Paglia says.
And so the ad didn't run.
The Seattle Times disputes Paglia's version of events. Lloyd Stull,
national sales manager for the paper, says the Seattle Times only
requested documentation to support Forest Ethics' assertions. Paglia
insists that the paper was uninterested in either documentation for its
claims that the companies' are clearcutting or in suggesting word changes
to avert libel concerns.
In any case, we checked on the claims directly. Spokespersons for Interfor
and Boise Cascade readily acknowledge the companies are clearcutting. We
were not able on short notice to definitively determine whether Boise
Cascade is the number one old-growth logger in the United States.
Meanwhile, Forest Ethics directed its attention to the East Coast, and
sought to place an ad in the Boston Globe targeting Staples, the office
"The ugly truth is that thousands of acres of forest are needlessly
destroyed every year to supply Staples with cheap, disposable paper
products," the proposed ad said.
It urged readers to "call Tom Stemberg [Staples' CEO] at 508-253-7143 and
ask him to stop destroying our forests, or send him a fax at
www.StopStaples.com. And when Staples tells you they sell hundreds of
recycled products, know that in truth 97 percent of their copy paper comes
from clearcut forests."
To Paglia's surprise, the Boston Globe refused to run the ad. Taking out
the phone information was not enough to satisfy the paper -- the Globe
refused to run an ad that mentioned Staples by name. Dennis Lloyd, an
advertisement manager at the paper, says only that the paper was not
comfortable with the way Forest Ethics "expressed" its views in the ad.
The New York Times, by contrast, says that it will run opinion ads so long
as they do not constitute libel. A Times representative says the paper
would have no problem with the substance of the Staples ad and the mention
of the company's name.
In recent weeks, right-winger David Horowitz has generated a storm of
controversy by seeking to place ads in college newspapers opposing
reparations for the descendants of slaves and being refused by some
Here's what the Boston Globe had to say about the controversy: "The ideas
against slavery reparations contained in an advertisement placed in
student newspapers around the country may well be insulting to minorities
on campus. But they are only ideas. Far more dangerous than offensive
ideas is their censorship, because censorship knows no ideology and will
Eventually muzzle the views of the minorities as well."
So why the double standard? The Globe should be consistent and carry the
Forest Ethics ad. The paper's refusal to carry truthful advertisements
criticizing corporations mocks the spirit of the First Amendment and the
notion that the press will serve as an institutional check on abuses of
Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime
Reporter. Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based
Multinational Monitor. They are co-authors of Corporate Predators: The
Hunt for MegaProfits and the Attack on Democracy (Monroe, Maine: Common
Courage Press, 1999).
(c) Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman