Newspaper-Tobacco ‘Unholy Alliance’
To the Editor:
It was refreshing to read Morton Mintz’s article, “The ACLU and the Tobacco Companies” [Nieman Reports Spring 1998]. Such an exposé is long overdue, and I applaud you for printing it, especially since it is apparent that other publications are not willing to risk the ACLU’s ire by questioning the organization’s financial ties to tobacco. I also applaud Mintz for sticking to his guns [Summer 1998] after being fired upon by a retaliating ACLU, caught with its finger in the tobacco pie.
Interestingly, the ACLU defends its bedfellow politics with some of the same excuses that the National Newspaper Association, composed mostly of 4,600 small papers, spouts for accepting money from Philip Morris to help fund the NNA’s annual conventions.
I became aware of this unholy alliance in 1993, when I attended the NNA convention in Cincinnati to collect a first-place award in commentary in the NNA’s Better Newspaper Contest. At that time Philip Morris sponsored a video featuring first-place winners. Although the video’s cost was minimal, I was dismayed to find my award tied to a product I often criticized in my columns. Imagine my surprise when I learned that the video was just a crumb compared to the whole loaf of bread Philip Morris provides in other ways to NNA conventions.
Consider: It is traditional for Philip Morris to sponsor an entire evening of free entertainment for the more than 400 newspaper families that attend the conventions. For example, two such extravaganzas sponsored by Philip Morris at past NNA conventions included “A Gatlin Brothers Evening” in St. Paul, Minnesota, seven hours of live country music, dining, dancing and merry-making and an evening of similar activities in Fort Worth, at Billy Bob’s Texas, “The world’s largest honky-tonk.”
Since 1993 the NNA has discontinued Philip Morris’s sponsorship of the first-place award-winners’ video. However, in its place is a piece of candy that bypasses individual writers like me who might complain about tobacco sponsorship and instead tempts editors and publishers to overlook who sponsors it: an “economic development” award to newspapers themselves. The top award is $1,000 that goes to a community organization of the winning newspapers’ choices. According to NNA literature, the award “promotes America’s communities by recognizing the contributions of your newspaper to economic development…[the]winning project will have enhanced local jobs and growth, met a preexisting community need, increased community spirit, and raised the standard of living of the community.”
Who could fault this award, no matter who is sponsoring it, and what newspaper would turn down the prestige of endowing $1,000 on some worthy organization in its own hometown?
Since 1993 I’ve waged a lonely campaign against the NNA’s ties to Philip Morris. NNA officials have acknowledged that others complain about the organization’s ties to tobacco, but, except for one publisher who wrote a letter to the editor of the NNA’s monthly publication, “Publishers’ Auxiliary,” I know of no one else who has kicked up the dust. I always get personal replies from NNA officials to my complaints. In a 1996 letter, then-NNA President and CEO Tonda Rush wrote, “We continue to believe that NNA should not take steps to discriminate among our sponsors or potential sponsors, so long as the products or services they promote are legal. Although some members feel quite comfortable separating tobacco from the list of legal products, others articulate a persuasive argument that drawing these distinctions is a slippery slope for communications media.”
Last fall, NNA’s new President, Ken Allen, spoke with me on the telephone about the Philip Morris tie after I left messages for him saying I planned to write a column or story on the subject. “Clearly, I would prefer to operate in an environment that NNA would not have to operate with any sponsorship,” Allen said. “However, a list of verboten sponsors is the [NNA] board’s call…. I sympathize with your point of view, but I want to do what is best for the NNA.”
Later, Carol Pierce, who is the NNA’s Vice President of Programs and Administration, informed me that the board frequently reviews NNA’s policies and that it had decided Philip Morris is an acceptable sponsor. The corollary, she explained, is that tobacco is a legal product and legal to advertise and, therefore, a valid sponsor—the same argument the ACLU uses for accepting tobacco money.
I’ve had similar conversations with other NNA employees through the years. The standard answer never changes. Perhaps that is because the NNA has a reason for protecting tobacco’s “right to advertise.” Newspaper advertising revenue could be at stake. The truth is that, while the NNA says it is protecting a legal product’s right to advertise, in the end it is protecting one of its own sources of revenue, as well. If NNA argues this point, then I refer the organization to its own “Legislative Briefing” report it mailed to NNA members. Updated on January 10, 1997, the NNA brief on Congress’s periodic attempts to eliminate advertising as a deduction specifically mentions tobacco and alcohol (Philip Morris owns Miller Beer). In this brief the NNA said it would “respond swiftly to any attempts to remove [the] important deduction [of advertising expenses of tobacco companies].”
Why? The NNA brief explains that, too: “By limiting or eliminating the deductibility of advertising and marketing expenditures, such legislation would increase the cost of advertising the targeted products, imposing a punitive tax on the advertising of a product that some members of society find objectionable.” The brief says that allowing this type of tax penalty against tobacco soon would lead to using the tax code “as a weapon against any form of controversial speech.” Is this not the same argument the ACLU uses?
Some people ask me why this issue is so important to me. Why should I care if the NNA funds its conventions and awards with tobacco money? Well, the reason is because of what and who the NNA is. Composed of weekly and daily member newspapers, the NNA touts The New York Times, The Washington Post and Editor and Publisher magazine as three of its largest, most influential members. According to its own promotional literature, the NNA heralds itself as having a “blockbuster, grassroots lobbying network in nearly every one of 435 congressional districts.” Also according to its own literature, the influential people that NNA members meet at such events as its annual Government Affairs Conference in Washington include “top government officials, cabinet members, key congressional leaders, agency heads, ambassadors and often the President at formal and informal sessions.”
And, the NNA says, it uses its lobbyists to influence these high-ranking officials by “act[ing] quickly and cohesively for the good of the industry,” campaigning for such things as filing “comments arguing against the tobacco advertising restrictions as unconstitutional, under the First Amendment.”
When you consider that the NNA also says it believes in the axiom, “He who pays the piper calls the tune” and admits that it has used that line at least once (and probably more) to bend legislators’ ears, it becomes evident that the NNA is hypocritical in its thinking. How can anyone at The New York Times, The Washington Post or any of the 4,600 member newspapers, in good conscience, criticize a political party or candidate for accepting tobacco money when the journalists, themselves, partake of the same poison?
Whenever I bring up this question, NNA staffers and administrators insist that, with journalists, the concept is different because there’s a difference between newspaper people and politicians when it comes to drinking, dining and dancing on tobacco money. The inference here is that politicians are corruptible and easily influenced (and therefore deserving of our criticism when we journalists see them accepting tobacco money) but journalists are objective and immune from corruption. R-i-i-i-ght. My opinion is that, if the NNA wants to maintain its image as the most influential newspaper group in Washington, then it would behoove this organization to quit accepting money from Philip Morris and find sponsors with less to lose in Washington.