The Washington Post editorial board could not have been clearer. “Facebook Shouldn’t Run Trump’s Lie-Laden Ads,” the board said in an unsigned house editorial last October, urging the company to “reject ads that contain flat-out falsehoods.”
Five days later, the Post weighed in again, in an editorial headlined “Free Speech Doesn’t Mean Facebook Must Run Dishonest Ads.” And less than two weeks later, the editorial board returned to the issue. Noting that Facebook’s powerful targeting engine enables the company to profit from “the world’s most precise and powerful disinformation apparatus,” this editorial insisted that Mark Zuckerberg’s company “step up to the plate and call lies out when it sees them.”
It’s unambiguous: the Post does not feel that media companies should profit from misleading political ads. But what happens when it’s the Post’s ad department making the call?
Last Thursday, as the Democratic National Convention was coming to a close, readers of the Post’s website were besieged with Trump campaign ads that took over the homepage on desktop and mobile devices. Against an ominous image of a city aflame, the ads proclaimed, “THE RADICAL LEFTIST TAKEOVER OF JOE BIDEN IS COMPLETE.” Similar ads were to run on other sites, including YouTube and the Daily Caller, Axios reported.
The ads linked to videos that made false claims about Biden—false enough that the Post’s own top fact checker, Glenn Kessler, went on Twitter to call them out. No, Kessler noted, Biden “does not support defunding the police.” And no, Biden’s China policies are not accurately depicted by Trump’s ads.
The ads—especially the fact that they obscured the Post’s homepage—set off a firestorm. Jeff Jarvis, a professor at cuny’s Newmark School of Journalism, launched a fifteen-tweet fusillade, asking the Post, “Were these pieces of silver worth the price of your soul?” Sara Fischer, who covers the media for Axios, estimated that such takeover ads generate $150,000 to $300,000, which is a significant number, even when your news organization is owned by Jeff Bezos.
Some journalists were in Jarvis’s camp, with Post business reporter Hamza Shaban pointing to the obscured homepage and noting that he and his fellow reporters “aren’t supposed to express themselves in ways that may embarrass the newspaper…or call into question its public interest mission of fair-minded and truthful news reporting.” His colleague Paige Cunningham wrote back, “Uh, yeah. It’s called paid advertising. It’s how newspapers have paid the salaries of reporters like you and me for decades.”
Cunningham’s sense of media history is right. Traditionally, news organizations have been willing to sell time and space to just about all politicians, even when they make unsubstantiated or false claims. This is usually couched as a free-speech issue, which is the way the Post’s PR department responded to me and others seeking comment about the Trump ad: “We have long given advertisers wide latitude to exercise their First Amendment rights and engage in advocacy, and that includes political advertising.”
That sounds laudable, but it ignores the fact that there are presumably some ads the Post wouldn’t run. The ad department lists twenty-eight “Terms and Conditions,” and the first one states that the “Post reserves the right to edit, revise or reject any advertising.”
But once again, news organizations are confronted by a dilemma in which traditional standards and vocabulary don’t hold up against a president as powerfully and consistently dishonest as Trump. It’s one thing for a politician to make a debatable (if dubious) claim, such as saying that tax cuts inevitably generate more revenue. It’s another to indicate that your opponent wants to defund police when he has unambiguously stated that he does not.
Veteran journalist Brooke Binkowski, who has served as managing editor of two fact-checking sites (Snopes.com and Truthorfiction.com), sees the Post’s decision to run the Trump ad as an ominous sign: “We’re in an incredibly precarious time, more so than many realize. The thing that’s going to tip the balance…is weaponized information and how much the American public is truly willing to tolerate. Putting those ads on the front page of a newspaper that routinely rightly scrutinizes and criticizes the Trump administration sends a subtle but unmistakable message” that the business side will always win out.
There are ways for news organizations, particularly those as well resourced as the Post, to deal with this. While we wouldn’t want reporters to work for the ad side as fact checkers, they could train the department in how to discern truth from dishonesty. Binkowski suggests that candidates could be required to “offer open-source proof of their claims from credible sources, or primary sources. If they don’t like it, they don’t get that ad run.”
The Post hasn’t shied from taking on the Trump administration, in its news or opinion pages. When I asked Fred Hiatt, the Post’s editorial page editor, about the disparity between his page’s stance on Facebook and the Trump ads, he noted that his company “keeps business and editorial strictly separate” but declined to elaborate further.
No doubt, the advertising department isn’t dictating what runs on the editorial page. But that’s not really the point. Unsigned house editorials represent not just discrete viewpoints on public policy, but a daily restatement and reaffirmation of a news organization’s standards and values. It is a way of telling readers, and the public, what the company stands for, and what it will and won’t tolerate. The editorial page’s mission to castigate Facebook for its failures doesn’t jibe with the advertising department’s willingness to offer prime real estate to political ads its own newsroom knows to contain false claims.
Democracy dies in darkness, the Post’s slogan declares. But it can suffocate in hypocrisy, too.
Bill Grueskin is on the faculty at Columbia Journalism School. He has previously worked as founding editor of a newspaper on the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation, city editor of the Miami Herald, deputy managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, and an executive editor at Bloomberg News. He is a graduate of Stanford University (Classics) and Johns Hopkins’s School of Advanced International Studies (US Foreign Policy and International Economics).