By: Joe Strupp
Clark Hoyt, public editor of The New York Times, took issue Sunday with the paper?s recent decision to run a discounted ad from Moveon.org criticizing Gen. David Petraeus.
In his regular column, Hoyt claimed ?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.?
The ad, which ran on Sept. 10, used the headline ?Gen. Petraeus or Gen. Betray Us.? It was published at a discounted rate, sparking some to claim the paper had given preferential treatment to the liberal organization.
The Times countered later in the week, saying the ad was discounted because it was purchased on a standby rate, which does not allow the client to choose the exact page and date for publication. The paper noted that an ad purchased by the campaign of Rudy Giuliani later that same week was given a similar deal.
But, according to Hoyt, the explanation is not that simple.
?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,? Hoyt wrote.
On Sunday, in response, MoveOn announced it would pay full freight for the ad — and challenged Giuliani to also pay up.
MoveOn?s chief, Eli Pariser, released this statement: “In the Public Editor column of today?s New York Times, the Times?s vice president admits that, without the knowledge or consent of MoveOn.org Political Action, the Times ‘made a mistake’ in charging MoveOn its standby rate of $65,000 for the advertisement run on Monday, Sept. 10….According to the Public Editor, ‘the group should have paid $142,083.’
“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. We will therefore wire the $77,083 difference to the Times tomorrow.”
The Times’ blog,The Caucus, reported later that it contacted the Giuliani campaign and received this from Katie Levinson, communications director: ?While we appreciate that The New York Times and Moveon.org have both publicly acknowledged their sweetheart deal, no amount of money will make right this misguided ploy attacking a general in a time of war.?
Hoyt had declared, ?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.?
Hoyt went on to explain that Eli Pariser, the executive director of MoveOn.org, told him ?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.?
Hoyt also said Catherine Mathis, vice president of corporate communications for The Times, told him ?We made a mistake.? He added: ?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.??
He then condemned the approach, writing ?For me, two values collided here: the right of free speech ? even if it?s abusive speech ? and a strong personal revulsion toward the name-calling and personal attacks that now pass for political dialogue, obscuring rather than illuminating important policy issues. For The Times, there is another value: the protection of its brand as a newspaper that sets a high standard for civility. Were I in Jespersen?s shoes, I?d have demanded changes to eliminate ‘Betray Us,’ a particularly low blow when aimed at a soldier.?
The entire column can be found at: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/23/opinion/23pubed.html?_r=1&n=Top/Opinion/The%20Public%20Editor&oref=slogin
UPDATE: On Monday, Leonard Witt, Robert D. Fowler Distinguished Chair in Communication at Kennesaw State University, posted the following on the Romenesko site, saying it was the text of a letter he had written to Hoyt.
On Friday, I began composing an Op-Ed piece for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, telling the 72 United States Senators they should be ashamed of themselves for voting on the Senate floor to condemn an act of free speech. Horror of horrors, the condemned insulted a general. The piece ran in today?s AJC.
I was equally dismayed when I read your public editor’s note in Sunday?s The New York Times. Your major concern was ?Did MoveOn.org get favored treatment from The Times? And was the ad outside the bounds of acceptable political discourse??
Yes, you gave a tip of the hat to free speech, when you wrote: “For me, two values collided here: the right of free speech ? even if it?s abusive speech ? and a strong personal revulsion toward the name-calling and personal attacks that now pass for political dialogue, obscuring rather than illuminating important policy issues.?
Then immediately afterwards you add: “For The Times, there is another value: the protection of its brand as a newspaper that sets a high standard for civility. Were I in Jespersen?s shoes, I?d have demanded changes to eliminate ‘Betray Us,? a particularly low blow when aimed at a soldier.”
I would argue having any one person at The New York Times decide how a public body can properly address a United States general is a particularly low blow to free speech.
Indeed, most of your piece was about how Moveon.org?s act of free speech did damage to its cause and to The New York Times. Instead of asking, why The New York Times, a long time bastion of free speech, prohibits the exercise of free speech in its advertising pages, you tried to find out which ad sales person actually allowed that act of free speech to take place at a reduced price. Want to kill free speech? Then expose and punish the people at the lowest levels of a bureaucracy.
The person with real guts in the organization was the man at the top, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher of The Times, who told you, ?If we?re going to err, it?s better to err on the side of more political dialogue. … Perhaps we did err in this case. If we did, we erred with the intent of giving greater voice to people.?
I truly believed you personally erred in ensuring that the trend to mute the public’s voice will continue and for that I think you along with the Senators should feel ashamed.