An intriguing twist last week in the campaign to get Fidelity Investment to shed its holdings in companies doing business in Sudan: The New York Times, CNN, Newsweek, Business Week and the Boston Globe all turned down anti-Fidelity ads sponsored by the Save Darfur Coalition.
Why does this matter? Two reasons. First, turning down an ad about one of the major issues of our timeâ€”a genocide that has been identified as such, even as it continuesâ€”reflects poorly on the big media. Iâ€™d argue that the Darfur story has, in general, been under-covered by the press, although The Times and especially Nicholas Kristof have been an important exception. When advocacy groups canâ€™t get news coverage, they turn to issue-oriented ads. Media outlets have no legal obligation to run ads, of course, but publications that like to puff up their chests and talk about the First Amendment and the marketplace of ideas ought to tilt very heavily in the direction of running issue ads. Hereâ€™s an image from the print ad that the groups turned down:
You can view the ad and a television version here.
The Globe, to its credit, ran a column about the ad campaign, and quoted a spokesman for its parent company, The New York Times Co., saying the ad was rejected because it “singles out one company for the actions of many that invest in China’s resources.” Thatâ€™s lame. Could it matter that Fidelity is a major advertiser in The Times and other financial publications?
The other reason why this development is worth noting is that Fidelity indicated to some of the media companies that the ads could soon be out of dateâ€”a sign that its position on Sudan investments could be under review. (I wrote a CNNMoney column about Fidelity and Sudan in January.) Allyn Brooks-LaSure of the Save Darfur Coalition told me last week: â€œThey are leading the media companies to believe, without explicitly saying so, that some new information will be coming out that will cause our ads to be inaccurate.â€
Fidelity, at last report, has about $1.3 billion invested in PetroChinaCo. Ltd. of Beijing. PetroChina’s parent — China National Petroleum — is Sudan’s largest partner in the oil industry. A volunteer group called Fidelity Out of Sudan has done a great job making the case for divestment.
Itâ€™s revealing to contrast Fidelityâ€™s response to the divestment campaign issue with Warren Buffettâ€™s. Buffettâ€™s company, Berkshire Hathaway is, like Fidelity, a major investor in PetroChina and, like Fidelity, Buffett has decided not to divest his holdings. (Harvard, Stanford and many states have chosen to divest.) But Buffett publicly explained his reasons, took questions about the issue at Berkshire’s shareholder meeting and invited shareholders to vote on the matter. They supported him, by an overwhelming margin. I think Buffett should at least raise his voice about the genocide, as so many others are doing, but at least he has taken the issue seriously.
As a private company, Fidelity has no obligation to put the matter to a shareholder vote but it has so far refused even to meet with leaders of the divestment. It has responded to investors who have money in Fidelity funds mostly with boilerplate. I just now searched Fidelityâ€™s website for â€œSudanâ€ and â€œSudan Divestâ€ and turned up…..nothing.