From the OC Register:
A change in the Register's advertisement policy – prompted by complaints from Anaheim council members targeted by political ads – is attracting accusations of favoritism from one affected advertiser and raising eyebrows among some in the newspaper business.
But the Register's publisher said that while the need for the new policy was brought to light by the complaints, the decision was not made to benefit any individual or entity. Rather, the move to ban negative ads was made to better the paper, he said.
"When we see opportunities to improve we do so swiftly, and we saw this as an area to improve," said Publisher Aaron Kushner, who led an investment group's purchase of the paper in July. Since the ownership change, the paper has undergone numerous changes, including large-scale redesigns and the addition of more than 70 journalists to the newsroom.
Some media professionals have criticized the move to block negative ads as vague and vulnerable to charges of favoritism.
"Blocking an entire category of ad – it can look like you're trying to suck up to somebody," said former newpaper editor Andrew Beaujon, who writes about media for The Poynter Institute. "But it's Kushner's paper. It's his right to make the rules."
Beaujon also noted potential issues with the absence of specific guidelines in the Register's new ad policy.
"Acting on a case-by-case basis can make it difficult to have a clear standard of ethics," he said, adding that a ban on negative and attack ads was unusual in the newspaper business.
The move has drawn criticism from Anaheim activist and blogger Jason Young, whose half-page ads in the Register's Anaheim community papers prompted the change.
His Dec. 20 ad said that Anaheim council members Kris Murray and Gail Eastman "Violated CA State Law" and cited a court ruling earlier in the month in which a $158-million subsidy to build two proposed luxury hotels was blocked.
The judge in the case ruled that the council had violated the open meeting law, the Brown Act, when it voted 3-2 to approve the subsidy in closed session. Murray and Eastman supported the subsidy.
"It's definitely censorship," Young said. "The Register runs adult-services ads, but they won't run our own truthful and accurate ads.
"I disagree with the characterization of these as personal-attack ads. These are informing the public of what's going on in the city of Anaheim."
Kushner pointed to the Register's editorial page as evidence that the paper was not taking political sides with Murray and Eastman.
Young acknowledged that the editorial page has shared his criticism of the hotel subsidies, of Murray and Eastman, and that it endorsed the opponents of Murray's and Eastman's allies in November's City Council races. But he maintained that the ad policy change was designed to benefit Murray and Eastman, two pro-Disneyland members on the council.
"Disney spends a lot of money on advertising in the Register," Young said. "The Register clearly has an interest in keeping Disney happy."
At press time, Kushner had not responded to Young's accusation regarding the paper's relationship with Disney. However, Murray said it was unjustified.
"The Register works with a number of large businesses citywide, including sports teams and hoteliers, and it's unfair to single out Disney," she said. She also took exception to the characterization that she broke state law.
The new Register ad policy reads, in part, "The Register pays particularly close attention to advocacy or opinion-based advertisements that could be construed as negative or attacking an individual or specific organization."
Presented with a list of 12 common subjects of political attacks – ranging from policy positions to criminal convictions to racial slurs – Kushner declined to enumerate which might violate the Register's policy.
"I don't think it's appropriate to answer hypotheticals," he responded in an email. "If we do have an issue, our first step will be to talk with the potential advertiser to help them make either less of an attack ad or less personal by name or hopefully both."
Asked about those, such as Beaujon, who say the policy is subjective and vulnerable to criticism of playing favorites, Kushner wrote, "Unfortunately any time something is regulated there is subjectivity – even in the judgment about whether and what to regulate."
Kris Murray said she and Gail Eastman had mentioned that they found Young's ads "distasteful" in a meeting with Register President Eric Spitz, but that they did not ask for any change and that she didn't learn of the new policy until a reporter called her this week.