A look at The Spectator’s more peculiar advertising
By Ufon Umanah
Do you want to hear the story of Christian Menchaca? According to an advertisement in a news outlet, he was a Private rst class, tortured to death by Al-Qaeda. Testimony in American court against Bashar Assad revealed that the U.S. Department of Justice under Presidents Bush and Obama refused to protect his family after they received a death threat from one John Itali, whose email is email@example.com. Parts of the death threat are provided in the book, advertised both as Fruit of the Poison Tree and as Crimes Against Mohammed and Jesus. That death threat, allegedly sent while the Menchaca family was ling for witness protection, is the same death threat that appears in full in an anti-fraud forum, complete with the dollars amounts and grammar consistent with a horrible extortion.
The news outlet that ran the ad, by the way, was the Columbia Daily Spectator.
The story of Christian Menchaca, typically stylized as Kristian in the media surrounding his death, is tragic. It shouldn’t happen to any U.S. soldier abroad. However, he is not the focus of this piece. Nor is the book, which proceeds to allege that Secretaries of State Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton obstructed justice and abetted nuclear terrorism. The focus is that the week of October 19th, 2016, this ad was featured on the front page of the Columbia Daily Spectator’s website, to the right of its most recent stories. In order to get that spot, an advertiser would need to pay a minimum of $300 to be displayed over an entire week, which means the newspaper received at least that amount in exchange for advertising this book, possibly more depending on how long the ad was allowed to run.
The question of acceptable advertisements is tricky. On one hand, advertisements are an important revenue source for a newspaper. Many items in the print media rely on a combination of ads and subscriptions. Subscriptions, however, aren’t really an option for college newspapers. In particular, the Columbia Daily Spectator relies on a combination of products (Courses@ CU, Eat@CU), donations from alumni, and advertisements. Still, being meticulous with what ads may air within a market of 80,000 viewers can be a self-defeating exercise. Yet, it is an exercise Spectator engages in. At the bottom of the media kit, Spectator’s official policy is: “We will refuse to publish advertisements that we judge to be potentially inflammatory, libelous, or offensive. As a general rule, ads where the primary intent is to advance an idea or perspective—essentially a paid editorial—will be deemed inappropriate for publication.” But, Spectator draws the line at books, stating: “Political ads publicizing an event or promoting a book will usually be judged acceptable.” Fruit of the Poison Tree was, and still is, a book, and based on written policy, its advertisement is acceptable. One may wonder, though, the distinction between a paid editorial displayed and a written editorial advertised.
The question of acceptable advertisements is tricky. On one hand, advertisements are an important revenue source for a newspaper… Still, being meticulous with what ads may air within a market of 80,000 viewers can be a self-defeating exercise.
That wasn’t the last strange advertisement to appear last academic year. April 4th, 2017, a “small, well capitalized, central California group looking to invest in extraordinary technology and great product ideas,” had started advertising on Spectator’s front web page. The group, Monkeylung, claims “legendary success” in many industries and close relationships within Silicon Valley. This isn’t a political ad, nor an ad for an in ammatory book. On rst read, it sounds like an InvestHelp clone or a venture capital group dedicated to a media strategy in the college market. Though, if you go to their website, there’s no portfolio from Monkeylung projects, the ones that had such “legendary success.” The only staff named anywhere on the site is E. Cross McDowell, whose name is on the NDA form you have to ll out before engaging with Monkeylung staff. To compare, if an entrepreneur came to an initial meeting and asked for a NDA, said entrepreneur would lose credibility. So as highly successful investors, they seem to behave like newcomers, which would make the ad at best hyperbole.
This isn’t to say that Spectator spends its money irresponsibly. This is a question of revenue. And while it’s possible to maintain a position that to the highest bidder goes the ad space, that isn’t Spectator’s policy. The newspaper reserves the right to nd advertisements objectionable. Therefore, on this issue, instead of being absolute, it lives in a liminal space, where the ads Spectator chooses to run represent as much of a judgement call on behalf of the newspaper as the news it decides to report.
This time, there’s evidence that Monkeylung paid for more ad space. Already, the ad appeared on the website, which is $300 per week for Spectator. Furthermore, the Monkeylung ad appears in the April 6th and April 13th print editions of the Spectator. The ad itself is one-twelfth of the page. Were it a black-and-white ad, it would cost $147. As a color ad, it costs $322 instead. Two of these ads would cost $644. On top of the online ad, Spectator received $944 to advertise Monkeylung’s offer which advertised “legendary success” and didn’t specify what that was. From these questionable ads alone last academic year, Spectator netted $1244 for the organization, presumably money going to fund their work-study program and their online operations and occasionally to boost morale.
This isn’t to say that Spectator spends its money irresponsibly. This is a question of revenue. And while it’s possible to maintain a position that to the highest bidder goes the ad space, that isn’t Spectator’s policy. The newspaper reserves the right to nd advertisements objectionable. Therefore, on this issue, instead of being absolute, it lives in a liminal space, where the ads Spectator chooses to run represent as much of a judgement call on behalf of the newspaper as the news it decides to report. And based on that standard, advertising a book attacking the U.S. government on the premise of a fake extortion letter is debatable. Advertising a company posing as highly successful yet showing no evidence to prove said case is also debatable. And if the college media and the news media in general wants to move beyond the infamous refrain of fake news, part of that conversation may have to revolve around what ads we show to 80,000 readers.