Last month, a Georgia-based media group with several papers and magazines in Alaska misled readers with a controversial editorial. In a leaked corporate memo, a vice president at Morris Communications told papers it owns–including the Juneau Empire and Peninsula Clarion–to run a pre-written editorial, and represent it as a local staff opinion.
On October 14th, media blogger Jim Romenesko published a leaked corporate email from Morris Communications Company, which owns two dailies in Alaska, along with weeklies like the Chugiak-Eagle River Star, Homer News, and Alaska Journal of Commerce.
The email is about an editorial the company’s CEO instructed local papers to run. (The memo is signed only “Mr. Morris,” which could refer either to William Morris III, or his son William Morris IV; both are cited as CEO on the company’s site, although the younger Morris officially took over the position on July 31st of this year.)
The piece in question, titled “Reckless Endangerment,” argues the Obama Administration’s decision to raise the number of Syrian refugees admitted to the U.S. is “a potentially destructive act.” It was published in the Juneau Empire and Peninsula Clarion on September 24th. And though it gives the appearance of having been penned by local editors in either Juneau or Kenai, the words are exactly the same.
The first line in the Empire version reads, “Don’t tell us America isn’t compassionate.” The Clarion opener is exactly the same: “Don’t tell us America isn’t compassionate.”
The pieces are identical throughout: Same overall argument, same numbers, even a lot of the same rhetoric, including what one person interviewed called “rough language,” such as saying the Administration’s immigration policy is, “A step bordering on suicidal,” that Syrian refugees come from “intractably retrograde cultures” that are “fundamentally at odds with freedom-loving Western society.”
In the leaked memo from September 21, Morris’s Vice President for Audience Robert Gilbert told 33 editorial editors and executive editors,”You should run it as your own editorial (not a column or op-ed), or produce your own editorial BUT MAINTAIN THE SAME POSITION.”
Nation-wide, 10 of 11 Morris’s daily papers printed the piece between September 21 and 26 (though titles varied somewhat). The only one that did not re-print it verbatim was the Florida Times-Union, which changed the prose and structure, but maintained the same argument, and cited nearly identical figures to make the case.
Gilbert did not return multiple requests for comment. Nor did anybody else at Morris, although a receptionist for the senior vice president in charge of ethics violations said all questions must be directed to Mr. Morris, adding that she was not authorized to give out his contact information.
Of the many Morris employees, both current and former, contacted for this story, all but one said they were unwilling or unable to speak on record about the company.
Peninsula Clarion news editor Will Morrow said the corporate memo was an extremely rare case, but characterized running it as a “straightforward” decision case that did not receive much discussion.
“The editorial space generally reflects the views of the management and ownership of the paper,” Morrow said by phone Monday, “and in this case it came from a little higher up in ownership than our normal local editorials.”
Asked whether he thought the paper had misled its readers, Morrow said he would not comment.
Morris Communications has used local editorial pages to make a political point in the past. In 2013, William S. Morris III wrote an op-ed calling for a set-net ban right as all of the company’s Alaska-based papers started running a five-part series on salmon stocks. In that case, however, the author was clearly identified by the byline.
Morris Communications is a privately held media company, and it’s their legal right to publish this kind of editorial. But to do so while passing it off as a local opinion piece strongly runs against the grain of journalism ethics.