Print readers of the Los Angeles Times are no doubt familiar with Donald Sterling’s advertisements.
Long before the furor over the Clippers’ owner’s comments about blacks, which led the NBA to ban him for life, readers would email The Times to complain about the ads’ amateurish design and self-congratulatory content. Many of the ads were for his apartment buildings. Other touted the work of his Donald T. Sterling Charitable Foundation.
One series of print ads touted a horse ranch in Malibu for underprivileged kids – but the reporters found that no proposals had been filed with the city of Malibu for such a project. Other ads said the foundation had made commitments for up to $20 million in charitable giving, but the reporters found that the amount actually distributed so far is much smaller.
Leaders of some social service groups that received money from the foundation complained about the use of their logos and likenesses in its advertising.
The story led some readers to wonder why The Times didn’t verify the ads’ content before publishing them. Some also wanted to know how much money the newspaper made from the ads.
Reader Thomas Schneider emailed, “As far as I can tell, Sterling at times ran multiple full-page ads the same day in the LAT, day after day, i.e. a large source of revenue. Shouldn't the newspaper vet its advertisers, particularly the major ones?”
Andy Gottlieb wrote, “What I find missing from the front-page article today is more of an examination of why the L.A. Times has been so comfortable taking his money all these years. It's taken you (the organization) until now to examine the possible validity of his claims?”
And Eric Shepard said, “Enjoyed your story today, but you left out one very big item. How much do these full page ads typically cost? I realize it’s more expensive on a Sunday than other days, but you gave no figure at all. I bet in some cases the Sterling Foundation was spending more on making itself look good in newspapers ads than they were spending on a charity itself.”
The reporters sought information about the ads and how much they cost. Here, it’s important to note the “wall” between the newsroom and the company’s business operations.
“The separation of editorial and advertising is a bedrock principle of journalism, and it cuts both ways,” said Managing Editor Marc Duvoisin. “The advertising department doesn’t tell the newsroom what to cover or how to cover it. By the same token, the newsroom can’t demand information from the advertising department that it doesn’t want to provide. Reporters can’t always get answers to their questions, even from their own employer.”
In their article, the reporters quoted Times spokeswoman Nancy Sullivan saying that the company’s policy was not to disclose information about any of its advertisers.
The Times’ advertising terms and conditions are posted on latimes.com. Regarding verification of ad claims, the terms state that the advertiser promises, among other things, that all material is accurate. The Times story did not identify cut-and-dried inaccuracies in the Sterling’s ads; it was more nuanced than that. The reporters wrote that the ads suggest Sterling’s charitable giving has been larger than the sums he has actually given out, and that some of the projects he has touted have yet to materialize.
Under The Times’ terms and conditions, the advertiser is also responsible for securing permission to reproduce photographs and other material.
If an ad meets the paper’s terms and conditions, it runs.
Advertising rates are not published.
The Sunday article included a statement from the foundation’s chief financial officer saying it did not pay for the newspaper ads. It is unclear whether Sterling himself paid; he did not respond to the reporters’ questions.
“I find it fascinating that The Times just took a huge bite out of the hand that feeds it,” reader Crista Worthy emailed. “I applaud your courage in speaking truth to power, or in this case, money. I hope The Times can afford it. I can't imagine Sterling continuing to run the ads after this. On the other hand, I certainly won't miss them!”