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N.Y. Times Probed on Sudan Ad Insert

3/30/2006 2:33am

March 31, 2006

The State Department is investigating to see whether The New York Times violated American sanctions against Sudan by publishing an advertising supplement touting investment in the country.

America has maintained a complex set of sanctions against the North African nation since 1997. The sanctions initially were aimed at punishing Sudan's support for international terrorism, efforts to destabilize neighboring governments and violations of human rights. In recent years, the government in Khartoum has come under intense criticism from Western nations and human rights groups for allegedly encouraging genocide in the Sudanese region of Darfur.

The same day that the eight-page supplement was published, the Times ran an editorial decrying the spread of genocide from the Darfur region of Sudan into neighboring Chad, the latest in a series of efforts by the newspaper to shine a spotlight on the mass killings in Darfur and to encourage major international pressure on Khartoum. The Times has caught the attention of the State Department, but not in the way that the newspaper had hoped.

"We are currently examining the advertising supplement," Erin Tariot, a spokeswoman for the State Department, told the Forward. "We are looking into it in regards to our own policies with respect to the U.S. sanctions regime against Sudan."

The issue was not the ad's content, but the financial transaction.

In addition to drawing scrutiny from the State Department, the Times is being criticized by some activists involved in the campaign to stop the violence in the Darfur.

Aside from the question of whether any laws were violated, either by the Times or by the company that placed the supplement, the decision to publish the added feature is highlighting the issue of how closely a newspaper's advertising content should reflect its editorial position. The Times has denounced the Sudanese government as genocidal, and Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has made Darfur one of his signature issues.

Martin Raffel, associate executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, accused the Times of violating its own advertising standards in accepting the advertisement. Citing the Times's published standards for "decency and dignity," he told the Forward, "I question whether the systematic rape and destruction of villages is decent and dignified."

Other critics of the Sudanese government were divided as to whether or not the Times deserved to be attacked. The Rev. Gloria White-Hammond of the Save Darfur Coalition said she was "shocked, amazed, surprised, disturbed" that the Times would accept "$1 million from a regime of thugs." She called the Times's coverage of Sudan "wonderful," but said, "We are very disappointed in the Times." The Save Darfur Coalition urged its e-mail list to write to the paper in protest. According to a coalition spokesman, the campaign had generated 3,800 letters to the Times as of press time.

Ruth Messinger, president of American Jewish World Service, chose to focus her criticism on the Sudanese government, saying, "It's disgusting that a government perpetrating a genocide on its own people would use a million dollars to pretend all is well and do business." Messinger also declined to criticize the Times. "For me," she said, "the enemy is the government of Sudan."

Kristof himself staked out a middle ground. In his Times blog, he said that the advertising revenue "represents blood money." Though he worried that the ad "tarnishes" the Times, he concluded, "I don't see that publishing this ad supplement hurts the people of Darfur in any way whatsoever."

The Times defended its decision to print the advertisement as maintaining a "free flow of ideas."

In a statement, New York Times Company vice president of corporate communications Catherine Mathis said: "Just as we print advertisements that rebut New York Times editorials, news articles or critical reviews, we print ads that differ from our editorial position. We do so in the belief that it is in the best interests of our readers for our pages to be as open as possible."

Journalism professor Laurel Leff, whose book "Buried by the Times: The Holocaust and America's Most Important Newspaper" criticizes the Times for failing to cover the Holocaust adequately, agreed with the notion that a paper as influential as the Times has a responsibility to open its pages to other opinions. "When you have a strong editorial view, you have to entertain the possibility of other points of view," said Leff, an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University. "When someone wants to present that in an advertisement, you're obliged to be open to that." However, Leff said the Times owed a more thorough explanation for publishing the Sudan-related supplement than the need to promote "a free flow of ideas."

Leff praised the Times's coverage as "strong, rightly strong on Darfur," but said that the Times, like other media, should still pay more attention to the story.

Summit Communications, a company that produces special advertisements in The New York Times for countries looking to attract attention and investment, composed the supplement. According to Tariot, the State Department has not received a license application from Summit to do business in Sudan.

The eight-page color supplement — known in the business as an "advertorial" — featured news-style articles touting the favorable business climate in Sudan. The lead segment bore the headline "The Peace Dividend: Prosperity Could Lie Ahead After Years of Conflict." In the segment, Sudanese ministers complained about media coverage of Sudan. One minister was quoted as saying, "Sudan is not only Darfur." Other articles highlighted investment opportunities in oil, agriculture and infrastructure, and criticized American sanctions.

The Times would not reveal how much the advertisement cost, but the paper's published rate for color advertorials is $173,119 per page. This means that an eight-page ad would cost $1.4 million. However, American Jewish World Service and other human rights groups have estimated that, because the ad ran only in the New York metropolitan area, the ad cost would have been closer to $1 million.

The controversy over the supplement comes at a time when The New York Times Company, like many other newspaper companies, is facing uncertain financial prospects. Last week, the paper announced that it expected earnings for the first quarter of 2006 to drop compared with 2005, and to fall short of analysts' expectations.

Since 1999, Summit Communications has had an exclusive agreement with the New York Times to produce advertorial supplements on countries. Other recent clients have included Argentina, Congo, Rwanda and Libya. When asked about sanctions, a representative told the Forward by e-mail that the company was not owned within the United States. However, the company does have offices in New York and in Washington, which means it would fall under U.S. jurisdiction. Asked about limits on which countries it would represent, the company responded by saying, "We have limits, and there are countries that we do not consider," but would not offer specifics.

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