NYT: MoveOn ‘Betray Us’ Ad Violated Standards
New York Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt thinks “the ad violated The Times’s own written standards, and the paper now says that the advertiser got a price break it was not entitled to.”
Did MoveOn.org get favored treatment from The Times? And was the ad outside the bounds of acceptable political discourse?
The answer to the first question is that MoveOn.org paid what is known in the newspaper industry as a standby rate of $64,575 that it should not have received under Times policies. The group should have paid $142,083. The Times had maintained for a week that the standby rate was appropriate, but a company spokeswoman told me late Thursday afternoon that an advertising sales representative made a mistake.
The answer to the second question is that the ad appears to fly in the face of an internal advertising acceptability manual that says, “We do not accept opinion advertisements that are attacks of a personal nature.” Steph Jespersen, the executive who approved the ad, said that, while it was “rough,” he regarded it as a comment on a public official’s management of his office and therefore acceptable speech for The Times to print.
Eli Pariser, the executive director of MoveOn.org, told me that his group called The Times on the Friday before Petraeus’s appearance on Capitol Hill and asked for a rush ad in Monday’s paper. He said The Times called back and “told us there was room Monday, and it would cost $65,000.” Pariser said there was no discussion about a standby rate. “We paid this rate before, so we recognized it,” he said. Advertisers who get standby rates aren’t guaranteed what day their ad will appear, only that it will be in the paper within seven days.
Catherine Mathis, vice president of corporate communications for The Times, said, “We made a mistake.” She said the advertising representative failed to make it clear that for that rate The Times could not guarantee the Monday placement but left MoveOn.org with the understanding that the ad would run then. She added, “That was contrary to our policies.”
The Times bends over backward to accommodate advocacy ads, including ads from groups with which the newspaper disagrees editorially. Jespersen has rejected an ad from the National Right to Life Committee, not, he said, because of its message but because it pictured aborted fetuses. He also rejected an ad from MoveOn.org that contained a doctored photograph of Cheney. The photo was replaced, and the ad ran.
In the fallout from the ad, Rudolph Giuliani, the former New York mayor and a Republican presidential candidate, demanded space in the following Friday’s Times to answer MoveOn.org. He got it — and at the same $64,575 rate that MoveOn.org paid.
Bradley A. Blakeman, former deputy assistant to President Bush for appointments and scheduling and the head of FreedomsWatch.org, said his group wanted to run its own reply ad last Monday and was quoted the $64,575 rate on a standby basis. The ad wasn’t placed, he said, because the newspaper wouldn’t guarantee him the day or a position in the first section. Sulzberger said all advocacy ads normally run in the first section.
Mathis said that since the controversy began, the newspaper’s advertising staff has been told it must adhere consistently to its pricing policies.
Pariser stresses that his organization did not ask for or think it was getting special treatment but “while we believe that the $142,083 figure is above the market rate paid by most organizations, out of an abundance of caution we have decided to pay that rate for this ad. We will therefore wire the $77,083 difference to the Times” and calls on Giuliani to do the same.
Regular OTB commenter yetanotherjohn mentioned this in a comment yesterday and emailed me separately. There has since been much discussion of this controversy in the blogosphere, mostly charging that this proves that the NYT is a commie liberal rag that doesn’t love America.
While I’m not a fan of Sulzberger and company’s politics, and certainly not of the ad in question, there still seems to be little beef to this one. The Times is a large business and it strikes me as unlikely that the senior management is involved in routine ad sales. For that matter, MoveOn is backed by gazillionaire George Soros and can easily pay the going rate for ads and my strong guess is that the Times is not in the business of turning down money.
From the facts presented thus far, it would seem that an ad guy called on Friday about an ad to be run on Monday was happy to fill unsold space and saw that there were some pages available for the desired placement. He quoted the standby rate, figuring there was little chance that the rest of the space would suddenly get sold out in the next couple of hours and neglected to mention the caveat that, at that rate, he couldn’t technically guarantee that the ad would run Monday.
Unless evidence comes out that there is a standing policy at the NYT to quote the standby rate to groups with certain agendas and the full rate for others, or that senior management intervened in this particular case, there doesn’t seem to be much to this.