Excerpted from the January 27, 1979, issue.
Although the relationship of the First Amendment to commercial advertising is complex, we start with strong presumption against banning advertisers because we disapprove of, or even abhor, their political or social views. But we reserve (and exercise) the right to attack them in our editorial columns.
The Nation does not consider itself bound by standards that must be applied to just any public forum. Our pages are primarily given over to articles that are consistent with the views of the editors. While we also publish articles and letters from readers that diverge from, or even diametrically contradict, the views of the editors, this is not out of a sense that our pages should be open to all or because we believe we are obliged to achieve balance. Whatever we publish appears in the magazine because in our judgment the views expressed deserve to be called to the attention of our readers by us. We are a magazine of limited circulation that enjoys no monopoly on the attention of our readers. They obtain other views in other places, and, through that process, determine for themselves what views to accept or reject.
Advertising is different. We accept it not to further the views of The Nation but to help pay the costs of publishing. We start, therefore, with the presumption that we will accept advertising even if the views expressed are repugnant to those of the editors. The only limits are those that grow out of our interest in assuring that the advertising does not impede our use of the editorial columns of The Nation to say what we want. Examples of advertising we might reject are those where the typography and layout simulate our editorial format and, thereby, deceive readers; or advertisements that are lurid or typographically ugly or that distort the appearance of The Nation by their size, frequency or placement; or that are patently fraudulent, illegal or libelous in their claims and language. Blatantly misleading ads, or ads purveying harmful products, will fall into a gray area of discretion, but as a general principle, we assume that our readers will have sufficient knowledge to judge for themselves the merits of commonly known products (such as cigarettes).
In imposing such limits, we will refrain from making judgments based on our opinions of the particular views expressed in an advertisement. If the purpose of the advertisement is to sell a product or service rather than to express a view, we will allow ourselves greater rein in making judgments about suitability. This reflects our view that commerce is less sacrosanct than political speech.
When we open our pages to political advertising that may be repugnant to the editors, we are furthering our editorial commitment to freedom of speech. Again, our obligation to accept anything in our pages does not derive from principles that must be applied to a public forum. Nor does it rise to the level of obligation that should be felt by a newspaper of general circulation or a television station which either by itself, or with a few others like it, enjoys a monopoly on communication with the general public in a particular community. Our obligation is of a lesser, but still important, order: to use space in which we refrain from expressing editorial policy in a way that reflects our editorial commitment to diversity in expression of opinion. (Unlike the New York Times, we do not limit our editorial opinions to two pages. As a journal of opinion, we do not face the certain reduction of space reserved for opinion as does the Times when it sells, in the words of Robert Sherrill, "advertising space on the inside of its cranium.") On the contrary, corporate political advertising within the limits described can only expand The Nation's "cranium" by enabling us to print many more pages.)
Clearly, the whole question is a matter of drawing fine lines and making nice distinctions. Ethics and practicality are interwoven throughout the substance of the issue of how to enable journals of opinion to survive and expand their reach. We do not pretend that troublesome problems are absent from this question.
Addendum for Web Advertising
TheNation.com carries display ads sold directly by our staff using the ad policy above however digital ad networks, like Google AdSense, purchase our unsold inventory and auction it to their advertisers. The third party agents who buy remnant space for ads we have not "cleared" are contractually obligated to meet basic guidelines.
We are not able to screen network ads before they appear but if we determine that an ad might meet the criteria specified above for rejection, we review it and make case-by-case judgments whether or not to block it. In gray areas, as with our print policy, we err on the side of inclusion.
Associate Publisher Sales
Vice President, Advertising
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New York, NY 10003