By: Mark Fitzgerald
Newspapers frequently complain when politicians use their headlines in campaign attack ads, but The Oklahoman in Oklahoma City is taking the unusual step of going to court to stop the spots a U.S. Senate candidate is running in a heated primary race.
In a lawsuit filed Friday, the Oklahoman’s publishing company, known as OPUBCO, is asking the U.S. District Court in Oklahoma City to order Republican candidate Bob Anthony to stop running ads that show the newspaper’s nameplate and articles behind voiceovers that accuse the front-runner of “shady deals.”
Not only is Anthony infringing on its copyright, the OPUBCO lawsuit charges — the ads also make articles that originally ran in the back pages look as if they were front-page news. “By modifying OPUBCO’s copyrighted material in such a manner so as to create the impression that OPUBCO believed that the stories about Anthony’s competitor were worthy of front page coverage, Anthony and the Anthony committee have created the false impression that OPUBCO may be encouraging its readers to vote against Anthony’s competitor,” the lawsuit states.
In response, the Anthony campaign is charging that the Oklahoman is singling out their man because the paper supports the Republican establishment’s candidate, former Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys. “Unfortunately, this has the appearance of substituting a political agenda for their journalistic responsibility,” Anthony’s campaign manager, Bill Shapard, said by e-mail comment after a telephone interview. “The Oklahoman is using the power of the press in a way that is not in keeping with the rich tradition of journalism.”
At a press conference scheduled for Wednesday afternoon, Shapard said, Anthony will show “as many as a dozen” different political commercials that used Oklahoman clips — without, he said, any complaint from the paper. “Bob Anthony has used Oklahoman headlines in his TV ads in all three of the elections he’s run, in 1988, in ’94 and in 2000, and obviously they didn’t complain then,” Shapard said by phone.
But Oklahoman Editor Ed Kelley said the paper does not object to the use of articles in ads — but always complains whenever any candidate uses its copyrighted nameplate. “It’s no different than if he used the Coca-Cola logo in his ads,” Kelley said Tuesday evening. “He wouldn’t do that, so why does he think he can use our copyrighted nameplate?”
Kelley dismisses the idea that the Oklahoman is trying to influence the race. The paper hasn’t made an endorsement in the June 28 primary — and may not, he said: “As far as (the charge the paper is) singling out his campaign because we’re going with another candidate, that’s patently untrue. The editorial board has met with all three candidates, but we have not made an endorsement, and we have not and not telegraphed (a preference) in any way shape or form — and when he says that, he’s not telling the truth.”
Anthony has checked with legal advisors around the nation, and believes they have done nothing improper, Shapard said. “It’s not like we’re staking out new ground” using newspaper material in political spots, he added. “It happens all the time, not only in this state but nationwide.”
That’s true — but more newspapers should start doing something about it, said Jeffrey M. McCall, professor of communications arts and sciences at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind. Told about the lawsuit by E&P, McCall said his first reaction was to welcome it. “Probably more newspapers should be conscientious on issues like this,” he said. “When they allow politicians to use this copyrighted material willy-nilly, they are allowing themselves to be used … News organizations in this day and age should come up with some sort of standard on how to deal with politicians who use their stuff … (to give) their ads a whole dimension of credibility.”
Newspapers are not injecting themselves into campaign races with legal actions over copyrighted material, as long as they forbid all candidates from using it, McCall added.
The ad in question is entitled “Shady Deals,” and concerns property transactions Humphreys was involved in while mayor and a school board member. While off-camera voices refer to the transactions, articles and headlines, one of which shows a big image of the Oklahoman front-page nameplate, are superimposed on the screen.
Shapard said the nameplates are not intended to mislead viewers about the placement of the stories, only to easily identify where they came from.
The campaign’s Web site alludes to the controversy with a note dated Monday that runs below a link to the commercial. It reads: “It has come to our attention that some viewers may interpret the use of the Oklahoman masthead superimposed over the paper’s headlines as an indication that the cited article appeared on the front page of the paper at the very top of the page. This is not the case. Although the headlines used in this ad did appear in the Oklahoman, they did not appear on the front page.”
Editor Kelley said a disclaimer on a Web site likely to be viewed by only a few is hardly an adequate response. “The point is he’s still running the television ads,” Kelley said. “We certainly have enough to do at this paper that we would hardly go out of our way to pick a (legal) fight with anyone — and that includes Bob Anthony. We asked him to stop using copyrighted material. If he would do that, the lawsuit would go away.”