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Another Brick Out of the Wall

Contrary to all journalistic ethics, WorldNetDaily escalates its policy of using its "news" articles to promote its advertisers.

By Terry Krepel
Posted 11/18/2005

Journalists should ... [d]istinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two.

-- Society of Professional Journalists ethics code

* * *

WorldNetDaily is, among news organizations, perhaps the most blatant violator of journalism's ethical standards regarding the separation of news and advertising.

ConWebWatch first noted this deterioration of the wall between news and advertising at WND last year, when it started running a series of "news" articles promoting subscriptions for a newsletter published by "geopolitical expert" Jack Wheeler. While each article began with a claim made by Wheeler or otherwise quoted him, they ended with a plug for the newsletter. A search of WND's web site shows that 33 of these articles ran between October 2004 and June 2005. In addition, Wheeler appeared at least twice on WND editor Joseph Farah's radio show during that time, and Farah started off a Feb. 22 column by citing "my good friend Jack Wheeler."

Prior to October 2004, Wheeler had been mentioned only once in a WND "news" article and five times by WND columnists. Since the final article in this series -- a June 11 article promoting Wheeler's plan to urge people to send President Bush a copy of the John Wayne movie "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," which features the line "Never apologize, son. It's a sign of weakness"; Wheeler intended it as a statement that Bush loyalists "are sick and tired of our kowtowing, groveling, constant apologies to Muslims" -- Wheeler has been mentioned only once at WND, in a column by Jim Rutz.

In February, ConWebWatch noted that a flurry of appearances in "news" articles by the conservative group Move America Forward coincided with the appearance of a graphic on WND's front page promoting a Move America Forward anti-United Nations ad.

A similar situation happened with the Alliance Defense Fund, the conservative legal group whose press releases WND has long made use of -- almost to the T, without bothering to report the other side of whatever issue ADF is promoting, as ConWebWatch has detailed. But in August, when an ACLU-bashing book by ADF president Alan Sears came out, and WND started featuring ads for it on its website (an Oct. 9 promotional e-mail to its readers noted that ADF was a sponsor) WND added Sears as a regular columnist. Though Sears (who had previously penned an occasional op-ed for WND) started out writing a weekly column -- nearly all of the ones following this announcement follow the ACLU-bashing theme of his book -- he hasn't written one since Oct. 27.

While some of this may be convergence of similar interests (WND has regularly railed against the U.N. and the ACLU), WND makes no specific declaration when a article in "news" format is actually advertising or is used to promote an advertiser, which in turn makes all "news" items suspect. The reader is forced to wonder: Did an advertiser pay for this article? Did Alan Sears pay WND to run his columns?

WND's advertiser kit page is not terribly forthcoming on what it offers, requiring would-be advertisers to write in for the answers to most questions.

Around that time of the Move America Forward escalation, Farah wrote a column headlined "WorldNetDaily not for sale," in which he lashed out at columnists such as Armstrong Williams and Maggie Gallagher who received thousands of dollars from the federal government in exchange for promotion of government initiatives. Farah ironically railed:

You didn't just violate journalistic ethics, you blew them up. You destroyed them. You rewrote the textbook. You are off the map of journalistic ethics. You have helped to ensure that the phrase "journalistic ethics" is considered an oxymoron – something like "trial lawyer ethics" or "snake-oil salesmen ethics." You have lowered not just yourself to professional prostitution, but you have impugned the character of your colleagues as well as those who came before you and those who will with any good fortune replace you.

Farah's rant was presumably aimed at accepting government money. He has yet to publicly discuss WND's corruption of its news product in the service of generating advertising revenue, where it appears WND's news pages are very much for sale.

That may be because Farah is the most egregious offender in encouraging that corruption. As ConWebWatch detailed, Farah -- in the midst of committing another journalistic felony, plagiarism -- steered an article toward an area that was not germane to its original subject (government seizure of stolen gold coins) to promote a WND advertiser that trades in precious metals.

That advertiser, Swiss America Trading Corp., has quite an entanglement with WND, only some of which WND has clearly disclosed to its readers. Swiss America is "chief sponsor" of Farah's radio show, and Swiss America's president, Craig Smith, is not only a WND columnist, he has guest-hosted Farah's radio show. (In fact, until ConWebWatch pointed it out, Smith's column bio did not mention Swiss America at all.) Smith is also the co-author, with bigot and Swift Boat Veteran promoter Jerome Corsi, of a new WND-published book claiming that oil is neither a fossil fuel nor a finite resource.

And a Swiss America newsletter, Real Money Perspectives, is the new co-brand partner for WND's business-news page, BizNetDaily. A Nov. 1 article announcing the change (WND's previous partner had been the Christian magazine Business Reform) notes that BizNetDaily will become "a dedicated market news digest" for the gold and commodities markets -- precisely the business Swiss America is in.

Another beneficiary of WND's news-as-advertising policy is Voice of the Martyrs, which claims a mission of "aiding Christians around the world who are being persecuted for their faith in Christ." Voice of the Martyrs is billed as a sponsor of Farah's radio show and of WND, but it's much more than that -- like the Alliance Defense Fund, it's a story source. WND likes running stories about persecuted Christians (even as it runs from stories about non-Christians persecuted for their faith, as ConWebWatch has detailed).

Farah wrote a 2001 column marking the death of the group's founder. Beginning in mid-2003, WND has run dozens of articles using Voices of the Martyrs as a source -- an Oct. 21 WND article on Chinese church leaders being arrested reads not unlike a Voice of the Martyrs press release -- and other articles related to Christian persecution that aren't directly sourced from the group have a tag encouraging readers to sign up for Voice of the Martyrs' newsletter.

Voice of the Martyrs also gets the Jack Wheeler treatment. Praise-laden articles written by WND's Ron Strom on the group and its founder regularly pop up on WND's front page as promos for the group even though they were written months ago.

The latest advertiser beneficiary is the Life Donor program (which aims to "educate pregnant young women about their options to abortion, saving countless unborn lives in the process"). An Oct. 26 article about the Life Donor program has regularly appeared on WND's front page ever since.

You don't even have to have a worthy cause for WND write a "news" article about you. A June 30 article promotes -- and offers a link to -- a seller of distributorships for Altoids vending machines.

We don't begrudge WND's desire to make money on its news operation -- we know it's difficult for content-based companies such as online news organizations, to turn a profit without selling ads, and we have not criticized WND's heavy promotion of the books it publishes (except when it fails to disclose that it published the book) or the items it sells in its retail operation. We do begrudge, however, packaging advertising like news. Farah, a newspaper editor before starting WND, knows better. He knows the ethics involved, as he proved in the column he wrote excoriating pay-for-play columnists like Williams and Gallagher. He knows that it's wrong. He knows (or should, anyway) that to build credibility for his news organization, a secure wall between news and advertising is the best policy; as he wrote in a May 11 column marking WND's eighth anniversary: "We believe we must be credible, relentless and fiercely independent to succeed." And he should also know that corrupting your news product by making your ads indistinguishable from your news is not the way to become credible.

The question is, does Farah genuinely care enough at WND's credibility to do anything about it?

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