Monday, September 24, 2007

NYT's exercise in damage exacerbation

After prevaricating for almost two weeks, the New York Times has admitted it made a ‘mistake’ in giving a discounted rate for its now infamous ad attacking General Petraeus, and various executives have gone on the record to try and explain away the scandal. The trouble is, their explanations just don’t ring true.

A notable exception is the paper’s Public Editor, or ‘ombudsman’, Clark Hoyt, who in a strikingly honest editorial about the affair, confirms that should indeed have paid $142,083, rather than $64,575, and questions whether the Times should have carried the ad in the first place. MoveOn has reluctantly agreed to pay the balance.

The row over the discount centres on the fact that the Times gave MoveOn a ‘standby’ rate for the ad. As Hoyt explains, customers who pay this rate ‘aren’t guaranteed what day their ad will appear, only that it will be in the paper within seven days’.

Such an arrangement would clearly have been of no use to MoveOn, whose ad could only have run on Monday September 10, the day Petraeus made his report to Congress. And while the Times would have us believe that the foul-up was due to some misunderstanding between MoveOn and a lowly and anonymous sales rep, it’s also inconceivable that senior ad people weren’t aware of the time-sensitive nature of the ad, and how much it was sold for.

Hoyt quotes Steph Jespersen, the executive who approved the ad, as saying that, while he regarded its contents as ‘rough’, he regarded it as a comment on a public official’s management of his office, and therefore acceptable for the Times to carry.

If Jespersen approved the ad then he must surely have been aware that it needed to run on the Monday, and it’s hard to believe that he wasn’t also aware of how much MoveOn was paying. I don’t know what kind of seniority Jespersen holds in the Times’ advertising hierarchy, but the buck clearly didn’t stop with that anonymous sales rep.

There’s also the issue of how much Rudi Giuliani paid, or should have paid, for his ad rebutting the attack on Petraeus, which ran in the Times the following Friday. Hoyt writes that Rudolph Giuliani ‘demanded space in the following Friday’s Times to answer He got it — and at the same $64,575 rate that paid’.

So if Giuliani got the same deal as MoveOn, then he should now have to pay the higher rate as well, right? MoveOn’s Eli Pariser certainly thinks so. In a statement that stands as a masterpiece of self-indulgence and equivocation, Pariser blames the whole debacle on the Times, grudgingly agrees to stump up the extra $77,083 (which is hardly going to leave much of a hole in the organisation’s Soros-lined pockets) and calls on Giuliani to pay the higher fee, because he 'received exactly the same ad deal for the same price'.

However this doesn’t in fact appear to be the case. According to Giuliani, his people were given the ‘standby’ rate because the Times was unable to guarantee that the ad would run on Friday 14th. Speaking on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show on the Thursday, Giuliani said: “We submitted the ad, and they wouldn’t tell us whether they were going to put it in tomorrow.”

In the event Giuliani’s ad did appear on the Friday. However, while we're not privy to the exact nature of the agreement between Giuliani’s people and the Times, if placement on that day wasn’t guaranteed – as it obviously was with MoveOn – then there’s no reason why Giuliani should have to pay any more than the standby rate.

Of course, both MoveOn and the Times would have you believe that piffling disputes over who paid how much for what are diverting attention away from the loftier issues that lie at the heart of this affair. In his statement, Pariser says the ‘dishonesty’ of the Bush Administration ‘is more worthy of the attention of the electorate and the media than the mistake of an advertising representative or the wording of an advertisement'.

And here’s Arthur ‘Pinch’ Sulzberger Jr, publisher of the Times, who claims he wasn’t aware of MoveOn’s ad until it appeared in the paper: “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.”

Fine words indeed – they could well be the Times' epitaph some day. Meanwhile the paper faces serious questions about the integrity and incompetence of senior executives and about its relationship with far-left organisations such as MoveOn, and could yet attract the interest of the Federal Election Commission. Likewise, for MoveOn, which disastrously miscalculated the outrage its ad would cause, and for those Democrats who failed to distance themselves from the ad, the matter isn’t likely to go away any time soon.

You’d think that, given almost two weeks, such an august body of wordsmiths could have come up with a rather more convincing account of what went on. As Thomas Lifson wrote at The American Thinker yesterday: ‘Once again, the Watergate maxim that "the cover-up is worse than the crime" is proving valid.’

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