How an Islamophobic ad ran in the Tennessean, and what happened next
June 25, 2020 9:29 PM   Subscribe

On Friday, June 19, 2020, Tennessee's Republican-led House of Representatives passed House Resolution 340, a resolution that congratulates the state's citizens "for clearly seeing that the mainstream media has sensationalized the reporting on COVID-19 in the service of political agendas." (Newsweek). Two days later, the Nashville Tennessean — the largest newspaper in the state — published a full-page ad of an Islamophobic conspiracy (tweet with photos of the print ad) from a fringe post-apocalyptic Christian organization. What Happened in the Tennessean’s Newsroom After That “Indefensible” Anti-Muslim Ad (Slate interview by Aymann Ismail with David Plazas, the opinion and engagement director)
(Ismail) I’m a Muslim person born and raised in America. I’ve gotten quite numb toward Islamophobia in media. When I saw the ad, I first thought to myself, “Well, this isn’t any worse than what I’ve heard from the president or Newt Gingrich.” What surprised me was how quickly the Tennessean responded, and how forcefully. Did you anticipate the national attention it got?

(Plazas) I’m not sure if I anticipated it. I’ve been doxed before on Twitter and in some cases I also get desensitized too. I’m a gay Latino man. And I say that because I live in this intrasectionality in the South, in a place where Confederate monuments abound. And I’ve been in a place where you’re constantly trying to chart your path in a very supremacist environment, even if not everybody’s like that. I think I was super sensitive to the ad because [the Tennessean] had just gone on weeks and weeks of what I thought was really meaningful and substantive coverage of Black Lives Matter protests. We had this package of all Black voices at the beginning of June that I was very proud of. And I had just written a column a few days before I went on furlough where I talked about the insult that state lawmakers made to a young Black woman denying her a memorial because of an allegation of a drug sale. Even internally we’ve done some great work with our employee resource groups to talk about these issues of racism and white supremacy and inclusion. And so this was a real shocker because, like you, I’ve seen all sorts of racism and you sometimes get numb to it. But at a certain point, especially in the last several weeks, I felt empowered to think we’re on the right path, and then this is a big one-two punch.
The executive director of the American Muslim Advisory Council said that because of the ad, “a huge target was placed on our community.” There are about 40,000 Muslims who live in the Nashville area. I know that you were planning, once it’s safe, going to visit the mosque. Is there anything that you are thinking about doing to help them that you haven’t mentioned so far?

We don’t want to assume that we know what the best steps are. So we don’t have it in mind quite yet, but in terms of just the bullet points of what’s happened, there was the termination of the manager, the change in processes in advertising, the returning of the money for the ad to the [Christian] group, donating the equivalent money to the American Muslim Advisory Council, granting house ads worth $50,000 to the American Muslim Advisory Council to help with the campaign for anti-racism. And general outreach. In a few days, I’ll also be interviewing on a podcast Sabina Mohyuddin, who’s the executive director of American Muslim Advisory Council. We actually had that interview scheduled several weeks before this happened, but obviously, we now have new things to talk about.
posted by filthy light thief (14 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
What struck me is how, at perhaps the most newsworthy period in American history since the late 1960s, newspaper staff are on furlough. Traditional news media is nothing more than a hook to hang advertising on.
posted by cilantro at 2:12 AM on June 26 [12 favorites]

David Plazas sounds disingenuous here. The Tennessean has run a number of highly questionable op-eds under his tenure. It’s a sham of what was a great newspaper now.
posted by jfwlucy at 4:54 AM on June 26 [2 favorites]

That manager was terminated ...

Digital ads purchased by the same group were removed...
Money from the ad sale is being refunded...

Tennessean apologizes, launches investigation...

Gannett will donate the $14,000 value of the ad...

The company is also giving the council $50,000 in advertising credit...

But all the king’s horses and all the king’s men...
posted by jon1270 at 6:12 AM on June 26 [4 favorites]

Why are they returning the money to the bigots who placed the ad? They got what they paid for (plus lots of extra national attention once the scandal broke), and now they get their money back? That seems unnecessary.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:18 AM on June 26 [33 favorites]

I was following this avidly because I used to live in Nashville, which has a substantial Muslim community, and I still have ties there. For good or for ill, Nashville has been gaining prestige as a city, and it was so embarrassing to see the Tennessean, a real newspaper for all that it is Gannett, do something that said to the world that Tennesseans are not so far separated from the hate cults over in the Ozarks after all. And after that week in the Legislature, too.

I was reminded of a story posted here on Metafilter, although I cannot figure out how to search for it. It was about a homophobic gag slipped into an article about a high school football player by an acquaintance at the paper; the joke accidentally made print. This was back in the '80s, and it was extremely not funny. There were a lot of grim consequences, including, I think, a suicide attempt.
posted by Countess Elena at 6:53 AM on June 26 [3 favorites]

...and now they get their money back? That seems unnecessary.

I think it's more about the paper going "this money is tainted now, we don't take money from bigots", even though services were rendered. They were more concerned about the optics looking like "sure, they payed lip service to the Muslim community but look at all the profit they made off this situation". This way, they not only didn't profit, but the donation to the Muslim community came out of their own pocket.
posted by AzraelBrown at 7:11 AM on June 26 [9 favorites]

(Countess Elena: probably this one.)
posted by Ampersand692 at 7:22 AM on June 26 [4 favorites]

Why are they returning the money to the bigots who placed the ad? They got what they paid for (plus lots of extra national attention once the scandal broke), and now they get their money back? That seems unnecessary.

I think they probably paid for ads that had not run so far, so are (legally) justified a refund. The article is not super explicit. But at a minimum some ongoing digital ads the article mentions were removed, it's conceivable future print runs had been paid for as well.
posted by mark k at 7:34 AM on June 26

Well, this has put me right off my lunch. Every day, the fine upstanding citizens of the United States of America teach me something new about my capacity for rage and disgust.
posted by invincible summer at 9:07 AM on June 26 [6 favorites]

This has been a rough week for Nashville. There was some hope our city budget might reflect massive outpouring of support for increased school and social service funds, but despite an increase in tax rates (that still leaves us with the lowest property taxes in the region) overall priorities followed the status quo. And an amendment to guarantee raises for metro workers failed in the final days. Meanwhile, we're on to phase three of reopening but numbers don't really support that decision and usually about 10-20 percent of people are wearing masks in public.

As per usual when it comes to state politics, I'm at a loss as to what to do. Really we have to support local journalism but I can't wrap my head around giving Gannett any money right now. My sister still subscribes to the Tennessean, to be fair they responded to her personally within 9 hours of her complaining about the ad on Sunday. But I'm hopeful for some alternative soon. The Nashville Banner was a paper shut down by Gannett and a group is trying to resurrect it as an online, non-profit alternative to the Tennessean. I'm not sure how that works but I'm now on their mailing list. The Tennessee Tribune is an independent newspaper does a great job giving voice the state's African American community but really does not do much local reporting. As always NPR is getting my money, but likewise they don't have the same resources devoted to local reporting that a local should.

And while I can believe the Tennessean Newsroom is earnest in their disgust here, this isn't a problem with just one Sales Manager who was fired. The entire ad buying infrastructure for the Gannett has to be royally dysfunctional for something like this to happen. Who checked the layout of the ad, ensuring it fit the page? Was there an agent representing this hate group? Will any Gannett paper do any business with this agent again? My mind boggles...
posted by midmarch snowman at 10:05 AM on June 26 [6 favorites]

First time I've clicked through all or any of this crap; kinda standard issue journalistic garbage. It is all the train-wreck that I expected to find; and more.

"If it bleeds, it leads" can be inferred to now being a part of the advertising accepted; I can easily imagine some team of fools thinking this was all ok; because just think of all the attention it will get.

Aside from content today; what I notice is all the grammar errors; from basic spelling, to incomplete sentences; to all sorts of simple garbage levels of editing.

Time was; a good newspaper could be a learning aid in itself; if not of the material inside; at least of being a model of the English language. So much for all of that. .
posted by Afghan Stan at 12:58 PM on June 26 [1 favorite]

Afghan Stan: kinda standard issue journalistic garbage.

The only (insufficient) excuse I could think of for the ad team was if they rubber-stamped the second full-page ad, assuming it was the same conspiracy nonsense as the first. Except it wasn't the same.

This is above and beyond an end-timer religion with money to burn, or insufficient journalistic review and consideration. It's spreading violent Islamophobic rhetoric, and the American Muslim Advisory Council said that because of the ad, “a huge target was placed on our community.”

As jon1270 noted, there have been some efforts by Gannett and the Tennessean, but it's not that easy to undo this kind of community damage.

I posted this in big part because of the discussion between Aymann Ismail and David Plazas. They both expanded the scope and context to this, on a personal, professional, and community level. They delve into some of the local history, and personal history, that make this story even more painful.

I haven't read enough of the Tennessean to say how the op-eds that Plazas approved looked on the whole, but I did find and read the post-Charlie Hebdo attack op-ed by Carol Swain, a conservative commentator and former professor at Vanderbilt, and it is awful. I didn't link to it in the OP, and I won't link to it here. I'll just say it's easy enough to find on the Tennessean's site, in a way normalizing Islamophobia. Sure, he was young and new, but it's still online, representing the paper to a degree, just like the NYT op-ed from Tom Cotton, one of Arkansas' senators, which advocated for an extreme show of force against protestors in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and other Black men and women.

A counterpoint to the discomfort, if not pain, from Plazas is the statement from James Bennet, the NYT editorial page editor, justifying why Cotton's op-ed was permitted, and still stands: “We understand that many readers find Senator Cotton’s argument painful, even dangerous. We believe that is one reason it requires public scrutiny and debate.”

There's enough danger aimed at BIPOC individuals and communities. There's enough unrest in the streets to just publish those facts, and rely on "if it bleeds, it leads." Where Senator Cotton was calling for military actions, which might encourage some military cosplay gun nuts to raise arms (which is an actual and real danger, as seen in Albuquerque, NM, recently), this is literally saying Muslims will start World War 3. You can laugh and say that just sounds crazy, but Pizzagate just sounded crazy until a guy who believed it shot the restaurant in question (Wikipedia). In other words, this ad is actively promoting violence against Muslims. Full stop.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:24 PM on June 26 [2 favorites]

My own thoughts... I am at a loss at how this got through in the first place. I don’t know what the ad services setup is at that particular paper, and it’s Gannett so that ad may have gone through central design. If that was a camera ready ad, whoever processed it should have raised the alarm. He said something about a company that connects the ad buyer with the paper. If so, this may have been a “remnant” ad (I don’t think they’ve outsourced their sales staff... yet. I could be wrong though.) When I was doing this, the rep or their assistant would give us the link to retrieve the digital ad. If we saw something that was problematic then it needed to be brought to the attention of ad services and the supervisor. If, somehow, the designer processing the ad didn’t raise the alarm, then ad services should have when they proofed the ad. The next step was the ad going to the rep or assistant for approval. There’s several spots where something like this would have been able to be caught. Now, if this wasn’t a camera ready ad and it went through the design department to be built... that’s bad. Any designer who got that ad jacket should have have said “aw hell no” as soon as they saw the copy, and brought it to the department manager so they could go to the top sales manager or the advertising VP. Anyway, that’s how it would have gone when I was doing this. We rejected ads for a hell of a lot less than that. I don’t know what their workflow is, but they just lost more money than it would have cost to get a couple more sets of eyes on the ad, and their reputation has taken a severe hit.

(For what it’s worth, the newsroom indeed does not see the ads. They don’t have much of an idea what’s running in the ad space, they just know what areas of the page are blocked off for ads. Editorial doesn’t really have a say.)
posted by azpenguin at 4:30 PM on June 26 [4 favorites]

According to the the ads were flagged by an employee for a closer look, but were approved and published nonetheless. The people who approved them were those fired. The paper's statement says they didn't read the ads, despite the flag, which seems monumentally delinquent but is certainly possible.
posted by mark k at 7:20 PM on June 27

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