Decisions Differ on Religious Ad

Media Talk

New York Times/July 22, 2002
By Felicity Barringer

Here is one conundrum they do not teach in business school: If a newspaper's policy requires advertisements to be verifiable and accurate, what does a publisher do when presented with a full-page ad presenting the text of a Christmas Day meeting "in the spirit world" attended by Jesus, Muhammad, Confucius, Buddha, Martin Luther and John Harvard?

According to the ad, which was presented to newspapers around the country this month, these men and hundreds of others in attendance proclaimed their allegiance to the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the leader of the Unification Church. At the spirit meeting, the ad said, Jesus hailed Mr. Moon as the Messiah, proclaiming, "You are the Second Coming who inaugurated the Completed Testament Age." Muhammad then led everyone in three cheers of victory.

God didn't attend, but sent a letter Dec. 28 seconding Jesus's remarks. Lenin and other leading communists also sent messages. Lenin said that he was in "unimaginable suffering and agony" for his earthly mistakes, and Stalin added, "We live in the bottom of Hell here."

At least eight newspapers published the ad, including The Daily News of New York, The Boston Herald, The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Los Angeles Times. At least two, The New York Times and The Portland Oregonian, did not.

The New York Times rejected the ad because many readers would find it offensive, said Catherine J. Mathis, a spokeswoman for newspaper.

The Portland Oregonian rejected it because it could be not proved. "If the Rev. Moon had claimed he was the Messiah, I would have run the ad," said Fred A. Stieckel, the publisher of The Oregonian. "But when he started quoting that Jesus Christ had said that he was the Messiah, I couldn't check the veracity of it."

Phillip Schanker, a spokesman for the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, International, which placed the ad, said he could not vouch for its accuracy - "it is very far from the Western mindset" - but added, "We're not requesting that people believe this, we're just putting it out there."

Richard Reeves, the advertising director at The St. Petersburg Times, said that disparaging comments would have disqualified the ad, but that Mr. Moon "was just trying to build up his thing with this wonderful meeting they had." And Ira Ellenthal, the associate publisher of The Daily News, said: "I ran it through the legal department first of all. It was deemed that there was nothing objectionable in there."

None of the executives called Harvard University to see if its long-dead founder had actually been at the meeting. Joseph Wrinn, a spokesman for the university, said, "It must have been another John Harvard."

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