Bill Keller on the Sudan ad

Bill Keller, the editor of the New York Times, weighs

in today on the subject of the Sudan

advertorial. Here’s what he has to say:

I know that the executives on the business side of The Times argued long

and hard about accepting the Sudan ad. In the end, as I understand it, the

prevailing argument was that the advertising space in the paper should be

as open as possible to points of view, even those our editorial page and columnists

vehemently disagree with.

Keller is being very disingenuous here, which is weird, considering that he

hand-picked the question to answer it. He would have been better off saying

nothing at all.

Firstly, the decision to accept the ad was clearly not made on ethical grounds.

The New York Times has no moral or journalistic obligation to run advertisements

with widely-varying points of view: in fact, it has lengthy

guidelines on what is and what is not acceptable, and says that it will

not publish any advertisement that fails to meet the paper’s "standards

of decency and dignity". It’s unclear, to say the least, how a genocidal

regime passes the test while a tobacco manufacturer, say, doesn’t.

Here are some much more likely reasons the ad was accepted:

  1. It was produced by Summit Communications, which contributes many millions

    of dollars a year to the NYT’s bottom line. Summit had presumably already

    produced the ad and promised the Sudanese government that it would appear

    when the argument at the NYT took place. If the NYT rejected the ad, Summit

    would be embarrassed in front of its client and would find it much more difficult

    to sell supplements since it could no longer guarantee placement in the newspaper.

  2. It represented about $1 million in revenue which would be lost if the ad

    was not accepted.

  3. It was bought, ultimately, by a government, and newspapers like to stay

    on relatively cordial terms with governments. No one at the NYT probably wanted

    to reject an ad and in doing so have to say to the Sudanese government directly

    that they were responsible for genocide.

  4. While genocide is the worst crime in the world, most NYT readers are actually

    less offended by an advertisement for a genocidal regime than they would be

    by an advertisement for a cigarette, or an advertisement which showed a female


No one is saying that the Times should have rejected the ad because Nick Kristof

writes about the Sudanese genocide: rather, those of us who found the ad disgusting

found so because the genocide is disgusting and the Times should not have profitable

business dealings with its architects. So when Keller starts going on about

his "editorial page and columnists", he’s missing the point entirely:

it doesn’t matter what they think. But given how loudly Kristof has been shouting

about Darfur, the Times can certainly not claim ignorance of what’s going on


Yet Keller comes very close to doing so, when he characterizes Kristof and

the Sudanese government has having no more than opposing "points of view".

On the one hand, he seems to be saying, Kristof says one thing. On the other

hand, the Sudanese say another thing. Our readers should have the right to make

their own minds up.

But as Dan

Gillmor says of another part of Keller’s article,

When we get “both sides” of issues where one side is essentially

(or wholly) telling the truth and the other is not — and then fail to

say so in plain words — we betray our principles and insult our communities.

The Sudanese genocide is clearly a situation where Kristof is telling the truth

and the Sudanese government is not. To pretend that there are two sides to this

story, and to do business with people who have murdered hundreds of thousands

of people, is beneath the New York Times, or any self-respecting publication.

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