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.