Shameless dailies run deceptive ad

'Bait-and-switch' in wake of pope's death misleads readers, exploits the faithful

April 23, 2005

by David Kopel

With the staff writers at the Rocky Mountain Newsand The Denver Postworking so hard to cover the papal transition, you might think that the Denver Newspaper Agency could exercise some elementary good judgment in accepting advertisements. But on April 12, the Newsand Postboth included a huge advertisement laid out like a real newspaper article announcing "Public to get free memorial prayer cards." The ads also ran in many other newspapers around the country.

As reported by an article in the April 15 Cleveland Plain-Dealer,the ad promised a "closely guarded" picture of John Paul II from "near the very end of his long Spiritual walk." Actually, the photo was taken in Canada, early in John Paul II's papacy. When people called the phone number for their supposed "free" prayer card, they got a pitch to buy a $13.85 rosary, and were told they couldn't have the prayer card for "free" unless they sent a written request. Callers were also told that the prayer card had been blessed by a local priest "Father Balish" with holy water from Rome; but the Plain-Dealerreported that there was no priest by that name anywhere in the United States.

Although naive readers were fooled, an experienced businessperson looking at the advertising copy would reasonably suspect that the ad was a classic "bait and switch." Shame on the Denver Newspaper Agency for betraying its readers by running the deceptive ad, and double-shame for dishonestly exploiting readers' religious faith.

Wednesday's Newscoverage of the election of Joseph Ratzinger as pope was adequate: four Associated Press stories, plus at least four locally produced sidebars, including one giving the views of Colorado's bishops. The Postwas somewhat superior, with five stories from nonlocal sources, and seven from Postwriters. Thus, the Postbrought in the perspective not only of Colorado's bishops, but also of young Colorado Catholics, of non-Catholic leaders, and of a local church worker who had personally met Ratzinger.

The stories in both papers made it clear that Ratzinger staunchly opposes changing church doctrine in ways favored by some American liberals (such as ordaining women or supporting gay marriage). But both papers could have gone much further in examining the theology of the man who is now in charge of theology for over a billion people.

For example, Ratzinger is author of 24 books with English-language editions published by Ignatius Press, whose fulfillment office is in Fort Collins. Local coverage could have included a story about Ignatius Press' relationship with the prolific Ratzinger. Even better would have been interviews with Catholic scholars who could explain the mind of Benedict XVI, whom even the liberal National Catholic Reporterhas called "one of the pre-eminent Catholic intellectuals of his generation."

Instead, a tiny three-paragraph AP item in the Post simply noted Ratzinger's "many" books, and quoted an Ignatius Press manager about the suddenly heavy demand.

Two Sundays ago, the Postdid a good job with another challenging story about religion: the new Left Behindtelevision series, an adaptation of the best-selling books based on the Bible's Book of Revelation. Postwriter Colleen O'Connor did a fine job of explaining the controversies about different interpretations of what the Bible teaches about the end days. Thanks to O'Connor's lucid article, a reader with no religious background could understand what a "premillenial dispensationalist" believes - and how pervasive this belief has become in the United States.

The Post'sreligion coverage has improved dramatically compared to a few years ago, when the topic was covered mainly through dull, politically correct articles.

"Iraqis mark Hussein's fall in '03 with call for U.S. pullout" read an April 10 headline in the Post.But as the article explained, the march on Saturday, April 9, was organized by Muqtada al-Sadr, the extremist Shia cleric who was defeated in a brief war against the Americans last year. While al-Sadr's aides had predicted a crowd of over a million, the "far smaller" crowd amounted to tens of thousands. The demonstration was worth covering, but the Postheadline created the false impression that Sadr's pro-terrorist, totalitarian sect was representative of general Iraqi opinion.

The Postapparently liked the Sunday headline theme so much that it ran an AP story three days later, headlined, "More Iraqis call for U.S. to leave." Yet the only evidence for the claim was the same failed April 9 demonstration which the Posthad reported on three days before.

Mea culpa: In my last column, I wrote that a zygote will "in the normal course of development, grow into a human adult." To the contrary, when you account for the possibility that the zygote might not implant, and for the significant possibility of first-trimester miscarriage, the odds are under 50 percent.

Mea culpa encore: Two columns ago, I described Postbusiness columnist Al Lewis as leaning left politically. He wrote me to protest, and I think he's right. To the extent that Lewis does bring political content into his business columns, it does lean left - such as in columns advocating greater restrictions on pharmaceutical companies or on outsourcing. But the vast majority of Lewis's writing is apolitical; he concentrates on business malfeasance and on human-interest topics.

Dave Kopel is research director at the Independence Institute, an attorney and author of 10 books. He can be reached at

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