"The coming Oil Spill Advertising War looks inevitable."
It's unlikely the decision to run the ad was made by anyone at the Pensacola News Journal. We suppose it was decided at a higher level within mega-media Gannett Corporation's headquarters in McLean, Virginia. Here's a scan of the heading:
To be sure, there is a case to be made that BP's dead-tree advertisement contains some minimal information that might be of interest to someone from, say, Mars who just landed on Earth. The BP ad is all text, promoting mostly a few of BP's web site addresses and phone numbers and slapping itself on the back for doing such a great job.
But there's no avoiding the fact it is a self-serving advertisement. It surely is designed to counteract the oil corporation's lousy image precisely at a time when many reliable news sources are reporting BP has one of the worst safety and environmental records in the entire industry.
There is one oddity about the ad, however, that we find noteworthy. The PNJ does not explicitly label it as a commercial advertisement. Indeed, the ad easily could be mistaken by some readers as a public service announcement.
This point is illustrated by simply turning the page to see another half-page advertisement in the same issue of today's local newspaper. This one truly is a public service announcement, placed by the Supervisor of Elections of Santa Rosa County. (We've obscured the names and addresses listed for privacy reasons.)
This all-text ad is clearly labeled "advertisement." You can see it here in close-up:
In fairness, the PNJ is running another half-page oil-spill advertisement in the same section. It was placed by the well-known local plaintiff's law firm of Levin Papantonio. That ad also does not bear the "advertisement" disclosure:
Yes, we do get it. Newspapers don't make money selling ads to their advertisers. To survive, they make money selling your eyeballs to their advertisers. Nor do we pretend to know whatever constraints the PNJ's composition room may be operating under.
One thing we are sure about: as this unprecedented oil spill catastrophe goes on and on, more advertisements can be expected from the oil industry, their complaisant mouthpieces, law firms hoping to corral clients for and against compensation demands, and both nonprofit and partisan political organizations.
Every newsprint publication is free to make its own judgment about whether to accept and publish those ads. That's the American way, enshrined in the Constitution. Rick Outzen made one judgment; the PNJ came to a different conclusion. Both, no doubt, have reasons one can respect.
The coming Oil Spill Advertising War looks inevitable. Let's hope, at a minimum, the press fairly alerts the reading public with an "advertisement" warning whenever self-serving propaganda is being presented in exchange for twelve pieces of silver. Survival is critical to a free press, but only so long as the price to be paid isn't loss of integrity as a trusted news source.