A liberal group buys a full-page ad in the New York Times and sparks an uproar. Critics say the ad defames a public figure, and the paper is accused of betraying a liberal bias.
It was March 29, 1960, and the controversial ad, titled "Heed Their Rising Voices," described how Martin Luther King Jr. was mistreated by police in Alabama as part of a campaign to destroy his efforts toward ending racial segregation.
The city commissioner of Montgomery, Ala., sued the paper and the four black ministers who'd endorsed the ad, claiming that it defamed him personally. The landmark case, The New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, is one of the key Supreme Court decisions supporting freedom of the press, establishing an extremely high burden of proof for a public figure who claims to have been defamed by the press.
Decades before the Times made headlines for giving MoveOn.org a discount rate to run the recent controversial ad, "General Petraeus or General Betray-Us," the paper was already one of the most visible public platforms for people who wanted to express their opinions.
From disgruntled stockholders to anti-war activists, pro-Israel to anti-Israel groups, environmentalists to defensive polluters, angry restaurateurs to conspiracy theorists, Hollywood liberals to right-wing fanatics, Donald Trump to Yoko Ono, all variety of personalities seeking a soapbox have paid tens of thousands of dollars to buy full-page ads expressing their views in the paper of record.
And in an age of declining newspaper readership (the Times' circulation slipped almost 2 percent from a year earlier) and a growing range of options for ad placement, including cell phones and video billboards, it's even more remarkable that the full-page New York Times ad remains such a coveted slot.
"It's a great platform," said Mike Hoyt, the executive editor of the Columbia Journalism Review. "You can talk about declining circulation, but the Times is still a big deal, the paper that the elites around the world look at."
Placing an ad in the Times gives anyone with enough cash a chance to get the attention of the paper's powerful and connected readers.
"The New York Times has a certain readership that is an audience we wanted to reach," said a New Yorker who recently bought a full-page in the front section of the paper. "Sometimes using a full-page ad affords you the opportunity to get a larger message across than a TV ad. There is a lot more content you can squeeze into that space, and it will last a lot longer than 30 seconds. People might not see it right away, but someone at work might show it to them a few days later."
Hoyt explained that a group trying to get across its message knows that an ad in the Times will make an impression. "It's got a lot of impact," he said. "Any advertiser wants their message to be surrounded by credible serious stuff, and the Times fits the bill."
But just how much impact such ads have is debatable: Amnesty International still hasn't succeeded in getting the Bush administration to close down Guantanamo, the Sea Turtle Restoration Project failed to get Jeb Bush to support its efforts, 1,000 rabbis failed to get Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard's jail sentence commuted, and some police officers failed to get accused cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal executed.
Others, however, have successfully grabbed the attention of Times readers. Denis Hayes launched the inaugural Earth Day with a full-page ad in the Times in February 1970. Hundreds of thousands of supporters demonstrated for a cleaner environment, contributions began to accelerate and the rest of the media took notice.
On April 15, 1980, when animal rights may have seemed like an oxymoron to most Americans, activist Henry Spira purchased the ad "How Many Rabbits Does Revlon Blind for Beauty's Sake?" to call attention to the fact that cosmetics companies routinely blind and poison animals to test ingredients.
"The ad worked," said Karen Davis, the president of United Poultry Concerns. "Proctor and Gamble contacted Henry, they began negotiating and they said they would set aside money for alternative ways to test their products."
Davis co-sponsored a full-page ad in the Times June 21, 2004, calling for the American Veterinary Association to stop endorsing the forced molting of hens for egg production. At the group's next conference, members passed a resolution condemning the practice.
Sometimes, the ads are just plain perverse. On April 1, 1996, Taco Bell bought a full-page ad, "Taco Bell Buys the Liberty Bell," stating that the fast-food chain had purchased the historic landmark to help the national debt. Thousands of confused readers called the National Historic Park in Philadelphia, not realizing that it was an April Fool's joke on the part of the company.
On September 1990, Leona Helmsley, the late hotelier, took out a full-page ad to scold Saddam Hussein for holding hostages. "I know something about how to treat guests," Helmsley lectured the strongman.
Others use space in the Times as a personal sandwich board to justify their actions or condemn their critics.
Earlier this year, New York City restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow spent what's been estimated at between $30,000 and $80,000 on a full-page ad that condemned Times food critic Frank Bruni's no-star review of Chodorow's Kobe Club restaurant. And Oscar-winning movie director Elia Kazan bought a full-page ad to justify his actions during the McCarthy era, when he cooperated with the House Un-American Activities Committee.
"Sometimes people placing the ad are only interested in reaching 200 people, but they know they will if they put it in the Times," said one advertiser, who added that the full-page ad has a greater effect. "It's a deliberate viral effect. People who read it have to be interested in it to care about it."