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.