The top Republican on the House oversight committee yesterday called for an investigation into possible elections violations by the New York Times for selling an advertisement to the liberal group MoveOn.org at a reduced rate.
Rep. Thomas M. Davis III of Virginia said the discount may equate to an illegal in-kind political contribution by the Times to the group.
In a letter sent yesterday to Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Henry A Waxman, California Democrat, Mr. Davis asked for a full committee hearing on the matter.
MoveOn paid $65,000 for a full-page ad (download pdf) that criticized the character of Iraq war commander Gen. David H. Petraeus — about $117,000 less than the Times’ “open rate” for an ad of that type and size.
The ad featured a photo of the general and the headline “General Petraeus or General Betray Us?” and ran Sept. 10, when Gen. Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan C. Crocker began two days of testimony to Congress on the progress of the Iraq war.
“The difference between the ‘open rate’ and the actual rate paid by MoveOn.org raises the possibility that The New York Times … unlawfully subsidized the message of MoveOn.org,” wrote Mr. Davis in a letter yesterday to Mr. Waxman.
“The discounted rate, even if justified in some way under the rate structure in existence at the time the ad was placed, may only reflect the manipulation of rates to support political causes favored by a media company’s publishers.”
Mr. Waxman, who as committee chairman holds the authority to call hearings, has made no decision on the matter.
“The New York Times has already given a very clear and credible explanation on how their advertising policy works,” Mr. Waxman said.
“Even though many Republicans are trying to ignore those facts and manufacture a controversy, I will give careful consideration to Mr. Davis’ request.”
Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis said yesterday MoveOn received no special treatment, and that it obtained a rate that is available “for advocacy ads of the type” that the paper routinely publishes.
“We do not discount advertising rates based on the political content of the ad,” Ms. Mathis said. “Normally, we don’t discuss what any one advertiser pays. But in this case, MoveOn.org has publicly stated they paid $65,000 for the ad, and that is our rate for advocacy ads of the type that they ran.”
Ms. Mathis said rates depend on numerous factors, including time of year, day of publication and whether the ad appears in black and white or in color.
“It’s sort of like flying,” she said. “There are first-class seats. There are coach seats. There are standby rates. There are a whole variety of rates available.”
But Mr. Davis said the U.S. Supreme Court has long recognized that even the “appearance of corruption” can be considered a violation of campaign laws.
The ad has caused considerable backlash. Republican presidential candidate and former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani chastised Democratic front-runner Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in a full-page ad in the Times on Friday for failing to denounce MoveOn’s criticism of Gen. Petraeus. He also accused the New York senator of participating in the attack, citing her comments during a congressional hearing that the general’s progress report on Iraq required a “willing suspension of disbelief.”
Mr. Giuliani said he asked for — and received — the same $65,000 rate the paper charged MoveOn for its ad.
The American Conservative Union filed a complaint last week with the Federal Election Commission against the Times and MoveOn, contending the discount was illegal.
The conservative advocacy group Freedom’s Watch also said it plans to air TV ads denouncing MoveOn’s criticisms of Gen. Petraeus.
Mr. Davis, who is contemplating a Senate bid, has been called liberal by some in his party and demanding the investigation helps him shore up conservative credentials by going after the liberal group.