Mountain Area Information Network Release
From Mark D. West, Ph.D.
The Asheville Citizen-Times ran a 48-page paid political insert, sponsored by a firm owned by Republican state representative Tim Moffitt, in its November 27 print edition without disclosing to readers the origin or sponsorship of the document.
The insert, which was not readily distinguishable from newspaper content, praised the actions of the state legislature under Republican control as it cut educational budgets, eviscerated environmental programs, and pursued gerrymandering projects which brought about a Federal lawsuit against the state.
Management of the Citizen-Times, which is owned by the Gannett newspaper chain, apologized on WLOS-TV for not labeling the insert as advertising, but did not mention its origin in Rep. Tim Moffitt’s InTouchNC, LLC. This firm’s business location is in Moffitt’s home, according to legal filings.
The insert itself makes no mention of Moffitt’s affiliation, although copies of the insert appear on Moffitt’s web site.
“The fact that the piece was paid for has to be prominently and clearly indicated,” says Dave Weinberger of the Harvard Business Review in a July 2013 article about sponsored journalism. And that’s precisely where Gannett failed. Worse, in their apology, they didn’t come clean about the political linkages of the sponsors of the insert.
The statement in the newspaper says that the Citizen “apologizes for any confusion [the failure to label the insert as advertising] may have created.” That’s akin to saying “I’m sorry calling you a name offended you;” it’s an apology that does not really admit to wrongdoing.
The Citizen-Times should cover this major failure of journalistic ethics like any other news story. They should report on who did what, when, and how.
“If advertorials become effectively indistinguishable from editorial, aren’t we in danger of destroying the village in order to save it?” Andrew Sullivan, former editor of the New Republic, wrote in a recent blog post. That’s a message the Citizen-Times should seriously consider.