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The Evil of Marketing, Part 2

WorldNetDaily's hyping of criticism of a WND editor's book: Shameless marketing, or the result of a secret deal between WND and the Alliance Defense Fund?

By Terry Krepel
Posted 5/11/2006
Updated 5/14/2006

The Alliance Defense Fund has a cause to flog. WorldNetDaily has a book to sell. Could the resulting convergence -- an ADF client, an Ohio college librarian, under fire for recommending a book written by WND managing editor David Kupelian -- be a better opportunity for mutual promotion?

It's so ideal, one would think that some planning was involved -- and perhaps there was. Kupelian has admitted to several conversations with the librarian and the ADF lawyer representing him while WND was reporting on the story. Did those conversations involve tailoring WND's coverage to ADF specifications? How about WND's (and Kupelian's) business interest in selling a few more copies of Kupelian's WND-published book?

That convergence, plus WND's history as an ADF mouthpiece, certainly raises suspicions.

The Scott Savage case

An April 14 article was WND's first report on the case of Scott Savage, a reference librarian at Ohio State University-Mansfield represented by ADF who was facing a investigation from the school after some professors accused him of "sexual harassment" for suggesting Kupelian's "The Marketing of Evil" and three other right-wing books for a recommended reading list for students. In typical WND fashion, its article ventures little beyond the ADF press release and other ADF-supplied materials -- nobody from the school was contacted to comment for this article. While WND does add a quote from Kupelian on the controversy, he fails to address a major criticism of his book as described in the article -- that his description of sex researcher Alfred Kinsey as a "full-fledged sexual psychopath who encouraged pedophilia" is a "factually untrue characterization of Dr. Kinsey and his work."

The article's claim that Savage was accused of "sexual harassment" -- a claim taken straight from the ADF press release -- is misleading. In fact, according to an April 14 Inside Higher Ed article, Savage was accused of "harassment based on sexual orientation."

The article also calls "The Marketing of Evil" a "best seller" but offers no evidence to support it; prior to this, WND had never promoted such "best seller" status other than at WND's own store. (It later noted that as a result of the controversy, the book briefly held down the top spot in's "Current Events" bestseller list -- again, not exactly what most people think of as "best-seller" qualifications.) This article was followed up on April 18 with an article headlined "University faculty bans WND book." That's false -- even the article itself doesn't claim that the book was "banned." It also created sympathy for Savage by describing him as "a pious Ohio Quaker who owns a horse and buggy instead of a car, and who embraces non-violence and peace in every area of life." An article the next day announcing that the harassment charges had been dropped once again falsely refers to "book-banning" professors.

WND moved on to further attacks on the university in an April 24 article branding its diversity seminar for students as "homosexual indoctrination." WND's only evidence of this are claims by an anonymous student and his father that in the seminar, "the homosexual lifestyle is celebrated, and the students are put on a 'guilt trip' for having negative feelings and/or moral judgments about the behavior of these people." Such diversity seminars, the article claims, use "tactics reminiscent of those of Chinese communist revolutionary leader Mao Tse-Tung."

An April 26 article, using an anonymous Virginia Tech librarian as a source, claims that the "The Marketing of Evil" is in relatively few college libraries because liberal librarians discriminate against "conservative, traditional-values-oriented books." To illustrate the alleged discrimination, the article notes that there are 3,542 copies of "unabashedly liberal author" Barbara Ehrenreich's book "Nickel and Dimed" in libraries nationwide, while "The Marketing of Evil" appears in only 188.

But the article fails to inform readers that "Nickel and Dimed" was released in 2001 and has sold more than 1 million copies. "The Marketing of Evil," meanwhile, was released in the fall of 2005 -- meaning it has been on the market for four fewer years than Ehrenreich's book -- and WND has not publicly disclosed how many copies of the book have been sold. Chances are that it's a lot fewer than 1 million. Additionally, Ehrenreich's book has appeared on the New York Times' best-seller list, a feat "The Marketing of Evil" has yet to achieve despite WND's repeated claims that the book is a "bestseller." Without that sales number for Kupelian's book, the library number is meaningless as a point of comparison; a more accurate way to measure the purported bias claimed in the article would be to compare the number of library copies to total copies sold.

This deceptive technique is similar to the other dishonest rhetorical techniques that WND and Kupelian have engaged in to promote the book, as ConWebWatch has documented.

There are three things worth noting about all of the above WND articles:

  • None have a WND writer's byline.
  • Nobody at Ohio State University-Mansfield was contacted for comment. While school professors and officials are quoted, those comments come from ADF-supplied materials.
  • The sources for the articles that didn't come straight from the ADF are anonymous, meaning that there is a cloud over their veracity. WND editor Joseph Farah himself has previously denounced anonymous sources: They're "usually quotes made up out of whole cloth to help make the story read better."

Kupelian himself eventually weighed in with an April 28 column that summarized his and ADF's spin on the case -- calling Savage the victim of a "witch burning," calling the attendees of the school's diversity seminar as "manipulated, guilt-tripped and – let's just say it, brainwashed" and portrayed the whole episode as another example of, you guessed it, "the marketing of evil." And again, he fails to address the criticism of his Kinsey

WND finally put a byline on a "news" article for the first time, in a May 2 piece by freelancer Walter Skold. But, as with the rest of WND's coverage, he failed to interview anyone from the university for his article.

Finally, a May 9 column on the case by Savage himself reads, "Persecuted librarian censored again." An editor's note states that the column was originally written for the magazine of the American Library Association. It claims that the ALA "said the piece was 'timely and well-written' and publishable 'at its current length'" but that it "abruptly changed its mind and informed Savage he had to cut the column in half or not see it published."

But WND has never made a case that Savage was "censored," as the appearance of this column at WND demonstrates. Requesting that the column be edited is not prima facie evidence of "censorship." Certainly WND has edited or requested edits to items it has published. That's not censorship; that's part of the publication process. WND also offers no independent confirmation of the ALA's action, nor does it offer a chance for the ALA to respond to Savage's claims.

Moreover, given WND's blanket coverage of Savage's case, unsullied by any attempt to contact anyone at the Ohio university where Savage works for a response, it's difficult to argue that Savage was ever "censored" in the first place.

(Update: A May 11 article that recounts the case through the new angle of excerpting a May 6 Columbus Dispatch op-ed by Christopher Phelps, one of the professors who criticized Savage for recommending WND managing editor David Kupelian's book "The Marketing of Evil." It's a selective quoting of Phelps' op-ed, focusing on his claim that Kupelian's book is "unabashed bigotry" and a "screed." Rather than responding to anything Phelps actually wrote, WND attacked Phelps as a leftist who has praised Marxism. And WND omitted a factual correction Phelps pointed out: the fact that Savage was accused of "harassment based on sexual orientation" -- which Phelps describes as "discrimination" -- and not "sexual harassment." In fact, in stating that Savage was accused of being a "sexual harasser," WND repeats the false claim again.)

Kupelian talked with ADF "several times"

While WND was covering the heck out of ADF's defense of Savage, an interesting claim surfaced in an April 24 post about the Savage controversy by Christopher Flickinger on the Human Events U blog, operated by the conservative Human Events magazine: "Kupelian said he talked with Scott Savage and his attorney David French of the Alliance Defense Fund several times."

This opens up a very large can of conflict-of-interest worms. Kupelian is, after all, managing editor of WND, as well as the author of the book at the center of the controversy.

Fascinating factoid:

David French, the Alliance Defense Fund attorney in charge of Scott Savage's case, wrote an April 24 column for about the Savage case. Nowhere in the article does it disclose that French is Savage's lead attorney.

Additionally, WND's coverage has indeed been unbalanced to the point that it has relied almost exclusively on ADF-supplied materials for its coverage and made no apparent attempt to contact anyone at the university for its articles, the answer appears to be yes. These contacts were never disclosed to readers; additionally, most of WND's articles on the case have been unbylined, which raises the question of just who wrote them -- and whether Kupelian himself had a hand. If Kupelian wrote those articles or directed how they should be written, that's a big ethical no-no.

And if the point of the conversations between Kupelian and ADF was to devise a strategy on how to promote the case to their mutual benefit, that's an even bigger ethical no-no. Indeed, there is a time-lag issue: The ADF's first press release on the Savage was issued April 13, but it states that "[o]n March 28, ADF sent OSU officials a letter informing them of Savage’s constitutional rights." That's a two-week gap between action and publicity. Meanwhile, for example, an April 27 ADF press release promoted a friend-of-the-court brief filed that day.

WND's history as ADF mouthpiece

WND and ADF have had a symbiotic relationship for years, with WND regularly promoting the group and lightly rewriting many of its press releases as WND articles. A search for "Alliance Defense Fund" in the WND archive returns 282 articles. And ADF was one of the main conservative legal groups providing fodder for the purported "war on Christmas" that WND has hyped the past two years.

One example of how slavishly WND follows ADF's lead, no matter how questionable the claim: In November 2004, WND reported on an ADF lawsuit by Cupertino, Calif., teacher Stephen Williams claiming that he was prohibited from handing out certain materials to his class -- taken, of course, straight from an ADF press release. WND preserved intact ADF's false spin that Williams was banned from handing out the Declaration of Independence. In fact, Williams had a documented history of using his classroom to advance his religious views -- to the point where parents complained and the principal began reviewing Williams' lesson plans and handouts in advance -- and the Declaration of Independence excerpt (not the entire document) was one of several document excerpts Williams was using to demonstrate the Christian origins of the founders of the United States. The ADF withdrew Williams' lawsuit in August 2005, with both sides agreeing to dismiss all claims and cover their own legal expenses; no school policies were altered, as Media Matters noted; Williams left the school shortly thereafter. Despite ADF issuing a press release about it, WND did not devote an original article to the withdrawal.

Another notable point came in August 2005, when ADF advertised on WND to promote a new ACLU-bashing book co-written by Alan Sears, ADF president and general counsel. While WND did the usual things it does for advertisers -- send an e-mail to its mailing list promoting the book, add links to the book to related articles -- it did something else unusual: Sears was named a WND columnist.

Even more unusual: By the time ADF's ad contract with WND had ended, so had Sears' column-writing gig. Sears wrote 10 columns for WND, the first on Aug. 25, 2005 -- the same day WND sent the e-mail plugging Sears' book -- and the last on Oct. 27, 2005. ADF was also listed as a WND "sponsor" in WND e-mails; the final time this sponsorship was listed came in a Dec. 7, 2005, e-mail.

Also, in that same time span (Aug. 25 to Dec. 7), WND ran 30 original articles featuring ADF cases or quoting ADF officials. Many of those articles are little more than rewrites of ADF press releases; two WND articles on Oct. 8 alone were based on ADF releases. In nearly all of those cases in which WND articles were lifted from ADF press releases, WND never bothered to contact anyone on the other side of the story -- much as it did with the press release-generated "war on Christmas" articles.

For instance, One of those articles, an Oct. 1 piece on a lawsuit ADF filed on behalf of a group called Love in Action, serves as a good example. Missing (because it wasn't in the ADF press release) is any hint of the controversy surrounding Love in Action, a Christian ministry whose claimed purpose is "prevention or remediation of unhealthy and destructive behaviors facing families, adults, and adolescents." One of those "unhealthy and destructive behaviors" is homosexuality. Love in Action gained attention earlier this year after a teenage boy wrote on his blog that his parents were sending to the Love in Action facility to "cure" him of his homosexuality. The state of Tennessee investigated, determined that Love in Action was providing housing, meals and personal care for mentally ill patients without a license and ordered it shut down.

Such obsequiousness to ADF's press releases made the WND articles, in effect, advertisements for the ADF at a time when ADF was ostensibly paying WND to promote Sears' book. And none of those 30 articles disclosed that ADF was a WND advertiser.

Why is this a problem? Because of this symbiotic relationship and WND's eagerness to serve as ADF's public relations agent, readers have a right to know where, exactly, the line is between news coverage and advertising -- a line WND hops over on a regular basis.

Given WND's ethical flexibility on such matters, it's no big stretch to believe that WND took the next logical step by working with ADF to coordinate coverage. The circumstantial evidence, outlined here, certainly adds credence to the existence of such a relationship.

Despite editor Joseph Farah's insistence that his website follows the "highest editorial standards and practices," ConWebWatch has repeatedly documented that -- from plagiarism to undisclosed conflicts of interest to biased (by commission and omission) reporting -- it doesn't. WND's unusually cozy relationship with ADF is yet another example, reminiscent of its similarly symbiotic (and undisclosed) relationship with Talk Radio Network and its founders.

If WND genuinely cares about its journalistic reputation, both it and ADF need to come clean about their relationship.

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