A documentary film about radical Islam that was distributed to approximately 28 million homes as a DVD insert in about 70 newspapers and through direct mail sparked controversy over the film’s content as well as the political motives behind its targeted distribution.
The St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times reported on Sept. 26, 2008, that DVDs of the 60-minute film, “Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West” were distributed in 14 states, including key presidential election battlegrounds Florida, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, by mail and as an advertising supplement in 58 Sunday newspapers. The Los Angeles Times and Associated Press (AP) reported that more than 70 total newspapers carried the advertising insert in September and early October.
The film includes scenes of carnage of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Muslim children being urged to become suicide bombers, and Islamic radicals chanting “death to America.” It also draws parallels between radical Islam and Nazism. The film begins with a disclaimer stating that “most Muslims are peaceful and do not support terrorism.” According to the Los Angeles Times on September 28, the film was first released in 2006 and was shown primarily on college campuses. Its supporters called it “eye-opening,” while opponents called it “inflammatory” and “unfair.”
At least two newspapers, the Greensboro, N.C. News & Record and St. Louis Post-Dispatch, declined to distribute the DVD and advertising insert. News & Record Editor John Robinson explained in a September 14 column that Publisher Robin Saul said the film was “divisive and plays on people’s fears and served no educational purpose.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch religion columnist Tim Townsend reported on September 22 that Vice President of Advertising Jen Wood said the film’s distributor provided the newspaper only with a trailer of the film, and when she asked to see a copy of the entire film, refused. “I didn’t have enough information to make a decision, so I said ‘no thank you,’” Wood said. “It wasn’t clear what exact message they were trying to send.”
According to the Los Angeles Times, newspaper readers in Colorado complained about the “Obsession” insert. In a September 22 letter to the editor of The Denver Post, Laurel Thompson said the film “tries to stir up deep anti-Muslim feelings that could hurt innocent people,” adding, “If I paid you to distribute an anti-Semitic DVD, would you be so obliging? Or how about a DVD celebrating the courage of [Columbine High School killers] Harris and Klebold?” The Los Angeles Times reported that The Denver Post distributed more than 553,000 copies of the DVD in its Sept. 14 edition.
Jim Nolan, spokesman for The Denver Newspaper Agency, which publishes The Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News, said the company seeks to “keep access as wide as possible” on issues-driven advertising, according to the Los Angeles Times. “Our business is to come down on the side of letting opinions be expressed,” Nolan said.
Editor & Publisher magazine reported September 28 that the Portland (Ore.) Oregonian distributed the insert despite complaints by the city’s mayor. According to Editor & Publisher, Portland Mayor Tom Potter wrote to Oregonian publisher Fred Stickel asking him not to distribute it. A statement from the mayor’s office said Potter “felt that the tenor of the video contributes towards a climate of distrust towards Muslims that holds the entire Muslim community accountable for the actions of a dangerously misguided few. Distributing [it] with the Oregonian lends the video an impression of objectivity and legitimacy it does not deserve.”
Stickel told Editor & Publisher that “I’ve always felt we have an obligation to keep our advertising columns as open as possible. Our acceptance of anything – our acceptance or rejection – does not depend on whether or not we agree with the content. … There is a principle of freedom of speech involved here.”
Jack Lessenberry, ombudsman of the Toledo (Ohio) Blade, wrote in a September 28 column that reaction he had received from readers about the “Obsession” insert was “all harshly negative.” Although he pointed out that the management of The Blade said the DVD insert “is not a news product and its content is not a reflection of the views or opinion of The Blade, its owners, or its employees,” Lessenberry said, “I wish The Blade had rejected this advertisement.”
On September 23, advocacy group the Council for American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) asked the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) and Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to investigate the Clarion Fund, the 501(c)3 nonprofit group incorporated in November 2006 that is responsible for the distribution of “Obsession.” The AP reported on September 24 that CAIR alleged that the Clarion Fund is a “front” for an Israel-based group with a stealth goal of helping Republican presidential candidate John McCain by targeted distribution of the film in so-called swing states.
Under the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, 2 U.S.C. section 431 et seq., and the federal tax code at 26 U.S.C. section 527, nonprofit groups are restricted from contributing to or supporting specific political candidates, and foreign nationals may not contribute to American campaigns.
According to the St. Petersburg Times on September 26, the Clarion Fund refused to reveal the source of its funding, but “numerous ties connect it to a well-known Jewish education group,” Aish HaTorah, an Israeli charity founded in the 1970s, “that vehemently denies any involvement with the film.”
The St. Petersburg Times reported that the Clarion Fund shares a Manhattan address with Aish HaTorah International, a fund raising arm of Aish HaTorah. HonestReporting, the group that produced “Obsession,” uses the same address, according to a 2006 tax return, the St. Petersburg Times reported.
According to the AP, the Canadian producer of the film, Raphael Shore, is a full-time employee of Aish HaTorah International, and The Washington Post reported that Shore and two other Clarion Fund officers, Rabbi Henry Harris and Rebecca Kabat, are also employees of Aish HaTorah International. Ronn Torossian, a New York-based spokesman for Aish HaTorah, told the AP that Shore’s work on the DVD project was not done under the banner of Aish HaTorah, calling it an “independent activit[y].”
The St. Petersburg Times reported that Clarion spokesperson Gregory Ross is a former employee of Aish HaTorah, and that Elke Bronstein, the name written on the permit for the bulk mailing of “Obsession,” is an employee of Aish Discovery, which produces high-tech programs and films for Aish HaTorah. The St. Petersburg Times reported that Bronstein said she worked for Clarion, but would not provide more information.
The St. Petersburg Times also reported that two of the three Clarion Fund directors at the time of its incorporation in November 2006 appeared as Aish employees on Aish Web sites at the same time. The third appeared on the Aish executive committee. According to the St. Petersburg Times, Torossian dismissed the connections.
The AP, St. Petersburg Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post observed that one of the Clarion Fund’s Web sites, RadicalIslam.org, included an article in early October that expressed support for the McCain campaign. The article has been removed, and Ross said its inclusion on the site was a mistake.
Ross also denied that targeting the distribution of the DVDs at swing states was meant to sway voters there. He told The Washington Post on October 26 that its release was scheduled to coincide with the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, not the elections.
Nevertheless, CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper told The Washington Post that the DVD distribution campaign is inappropriate for a non-profit like Clarion. “When you send material like this almost exclusively to presidential swing states that sends a message that you are trying to influence the election,” Hooper said.
Nihad Awad, executive director of CAIR, said in a statement accompanying the FEC request, “American voters deserve to know whether they are the targets of a multimillion-dollar campaign funded and directed by a foreign group seeking to whip up anti-Muslim hysteria as a way to influence the outcome of our presidential election.”
– Patrick File
Silha Fellow and Bulletin Editor