[Update: The newspaper and its parent company have fired an advertising manager.]
The Tennessean newspaper in Nashville is investigating how it came to publish a full-page ad on Sunday by a biblical prophecy group claiming “Islam” would detonate a bomb in the city.
The ad, which included a photo collage of President Trump, Pope Francis and burning American flags, urged readers to visit a website offering more details. The ad was credited to the group Ministry of Future for America, which says its mission is to “proclaim the final warning message” from the Bible.
Addressed to “Dear Citizen of Nashville,” the eight-paragraph ad spanned the full length of the newspaper page, and discussed Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Democratic Party and Sept. 11. It claimed Trump’s presidency was part of a prophecy, warned of “another civil war,” and said that “Islam is going to detonate a nuclear device” in Nashville.
“Clearly there was a breakdown in the normal processes, which call for careful scrutiny of our advertising content,” Michael A. Anastasi, the newspaper’s vice president and editor, said in the paper’s news coverage of the ad. “The ad is horrific and is utterly indefensible in all circumstances. It is wrong, period, and should have never been published.”
But Erik Bacharach, a sports reporter for The Tennessean, said the ad had also appeared in Wednesday’s newspaper.
“This is so severely irresponsible,” he said on Twitter. “I’ve got no idea how something like this gets approved — I have no inkling into the advertising process — but it’s absolutely unacceptable. My colleagues and I are seeking answers.”
The Tennessean reported that Sunday’s ad “was immediately ordered to be pulled from future editions by sales executives and the investigation launched.”
It said a similar ad, “one that did not mention Islam but also contained an end-times prophecy,” was published on Wednesday.
The Tennessean said its advertising standards forbid hate speech, and ads that do not meet its requirements are “routinely rejected for publication.”
As with most other news organizations, The Tennessean’s sales team and newsroom operate independently.
Ryan Kedzierski, vice president of sales for Middle Tennessee, said, “We are extremely apologetic to the community that the advertisement was able to get through and we are reviewing internally why and how this occurred and we will be taking actions immediately to correct.”
Gannett, which owns the paper, referred a request for comment to the newspaper’s coverage.
Jeff Pippenger, who identified himself as the speaker of the Ministry of Future for America, said the newspaper owed the group a full refund. He could not say how much the ad cost.
“I stand by all the content in the ad and the content in the website,” he said. “It seems to me the criticism is more aimed at the editorial staff at the newspaper, and the criticism about my religious convictions is simply what happens when you let your religious convictions out into the public arena.”
Ibrahim Hooper, communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said the ad was “unfortunate” but “symptomatic of the overall rise of Islamophobia, racism and white supremacy.”
Mr. Hooper said his group would offer training to The Tennessean’s staff on racism and Islamophobia, and that he hoped the paper would institute “real policy changes” to make sure the episode was not repeated.
While the ad was bizarre and likely to be interpreted by readers as such, Mr. Hooper said a minority of people could believe the false claims about Muslims.
Kathleen Bartzen Culver, chair of journalism ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said newspaper publishers have an obligation in advertising, not just in news, to “pursue truth” and avoid publishing falsehoods or inflammatory statements.
Publishers should also understand that some readers may not be able to differentiate between news and paid advertisements, Professor Culver said. “We make assumptions that people understand those differences,” she said.
On various platforms on- and offline, readers are inundated with misinformation, Professor Culver said. Even if readers understand that the ad is not news, they may not be able to interpret it as false.