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.
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.