Last week’s “Gen. Petraeus or Gen. Betray Us?” advertisement in the New York Times kicked up substantial and justifiable anger, over both the content and the apparent sweetheart deal for advertiser MoveOn.org. The Gray Lady has examined itself, and it finds its action wanting.
At minimum, New York Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt thinks the left-wing advocacy group MoveOn.org’s reprehensible attack ad last week on Gen. David Petraeus “violated the Times’s own written standards.” He reports word from the business side that the advertiser got “a price break it was not entitled to.” Credit to the honest Mr. Hoyt. The rest of newspaper must rue seeing its reputation dragged further leftward.
Mr. Hoyt finds fault with both the nature of this personal attack ad and the paper’s own disregard of its guidelines, substantive and financial. For the first, Mr. Hoyt writes that the MoveOn.org ad aroused his “strong personal revulsion toward the name-calling and personal attacks that now pass for political dialogue, obscuring rather than illuminating important policy issues.” Regarding the pricing issue, Catherine Mathis, vice president of corporate communications, comes forward to say, “We made a mistake.”
It was a $77,508 mistake, which is the difference between the standby rate of $64,575 and the guaranteed rate of $142,083. Both MoveOn.org and the conservative organization Freedom’s Watch asked for the same ad space on the same day. One was priced low, the other was high. One ran, one didn’t. This, Mr. Hoyt finds, was wrong.
He also cites company policy against scurrilousness in advertising: “We do not accept opinion advertisements that are attacks of a personal nature,” read the guidelines. Someone should have recognized that calling a decorated general a liar and a person likely to “Betray Us” is, in fact, an attack of a personal nature, even considering the very public circumstances.
Over the weekend, MoveOn.org sent the newspaper a check for the $77,508 difference. Good thing for the paper. Otherwise, the Federal Election Commission would have needed to consider investigating a transaction that “might amount to an illegal contribution to a political action committee,” as Mr. Hoyt accurately puts it.
For its part, MoveOn.org seems to have harmed itself little institutionally — its supporters are probably more convinced than ever of the vast right-wing conspiracy’s reach. But it very clearly undermined the antiwar agenda, sucking the air out of last week’s Iraq debates and giving the fence-sitters something to oppose. A tin ear for the martial virtues and a tendency to impugn even the most selfless of public servants will do that every time.