We've been pretty hard here on Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt - finding most of the biweekly columns from the paper's inside watchdog to suffer from either an excess of corporate loyalty or simply pointless (when he's not sniping at the paper from the left).
So it was particularly surprising when Hoyt actually unbuckled his company badge to tackle an issue raised by conservatives - the inflammatory MoveOn.org ad - in his Sunday Week in Review column. Hoyt did some actual reporting and got a belated admission of error that the paper's actual news reporters were unable to uncover: It was a mistake to grant MoveOn.org a deep discount for its infantile attack ad against Gen. David Petraeus that appeared the very day he testified before Congress.
"For nearly two weeks, The New York Times has been defending a political advertisement that critics say was an unfair shot at the American commander in Iraq.
"But I think 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.
"On Monday, Sept. 10, the day that Gen. David H. Petraeus came before Congress to warn against a rapid withdrawal of troops, The Times carried a full-page ad attacking his truthfulness.
"Under the provocative headline 'General Petraeus or General Betray Us?' the ad, purchased by the liberal activist group MoveOn.org, charged that the highly decorated Petraeus was 'constantly at war with the facts' in giving upbeat assessments of progress and refusing to acknowledge that Iraq is 'mired in an unwinnable religious civil war.'
"'Today, before Congress and before the American people, General Petraeus is likely to become General Betray Us,' MoveOn.org declared.
"The ad infuriated conservatives, dismayed many Democrats and ignited charges that the liberal Times aided its friends at MoveOn.org with a steep discount in the price paid to publish its message, which might amount to an illegal contribution to a political action committee. In more than 4,000 e-mail messages, people around the country raged at The Times with words like 'despicable,' 'disgrace' and 'treason.'
"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.
"By the end of last week the ad appeared to have backfired on both MoveOn.org and fellow opponents of the war in Iraq - and on The Times."
That just about sums it up.
Hoyt also seemed to contradict what ad executive Jespersen said last week in an online chat, no doubt set up to head off criticism about the ad. Indeed, the first question out of the box (excerpted below) dealt with MoveOn.org:
Q: " When the controversy came to a head, the Times spokeswoman explained that with advocacy groups, any customer willing to buy space on a 'standby' basis will get the same discounted price; while The Times does its best to accommodate with respect to the preferred date and placement, it cannot be guaranteed. Once the run date is known, the customer is usually informed. This is evidently what happened with the MoveOn ad.
"Some bloggers point to the fact that the ad, which ran on the day General Petraeus testified, said he would be testifying 'today,' and thus, The Times must have agreed to run it on that day."
Jespersen's response appeared to address the matter:
"Within the category of political or advocacy advertising it is common practice throughout the newspaper industry to offer a standby rate in addition to open rate advertising. When a group buys a standby ad, it can request a particular date for it to be run, but receives no guarantee that it can appear that day. The lower cost of such ads reflects the flexibility that gives us. Any political or advocacy group calling up today to request a standby ad would be quoted the same rate that MoveOn.org paid. It is also our practice to notify an advertiser, a day before, that we have room to accommodate his or her standby ad in the next day's newspaper, and at that point the advertiser can make minor changes in the text."
(Kate Phillips, an editor for the Times political blog, doesn't seem too pleased with Hoyt for refusing to "move on" past the controversy.)
"MoveOn.org yesterday said it would pony up the full price it should have paid The New York Times for a full-page ad slamming Gen. David Petraeus, a day after the paper admitted giving the left-wing activist group a huge discount.
"MoveOn said it would wire $77,083 to the Times today to make up the difference for the ad that called the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq 'General Betray Us.'
"'Now that the Times has revealed this mistake for the first time, and 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,' said MoveOn director Eli Pariser. 'We will, therefore, wire the $77,083 difference to the Times tomorrow.'"
Well, the George Soros-backed MoveOn.org can certainly afford it.