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.

 

Seth Hettena , a former reporter and correspondent for The Associated Press, is a freelance writer based in San Diego.