MoveOn.org’s “General Betray Us” ad may have gotten more attention than it deserved, but it also has underscored several important points: the foolishness of MoveOn’s ad-buying strategy, the cringing hypocrisy of the mainstream U.S. news media when attacked by the Right, and the pressing need to build independent news outlets.
So, MoveOn initially spent $64,575 for its Sept. 10 full-page ad questioning Gen. David Petraeus’s honesty. Then, because of MoveOn’s juvenile pun played on Petraeus’s name, the Bush administration and its right-wing allies exploited the ad to divert the debate on the Iraq War into an argument over the propriety of the ad's language.
The right-wing media – making full use of its extraordinary reach through newspapers, TV, talk radio and the Internet – also spread the word that the Times showed its "liberal bias" by giving MoveOn a favorable “discount” ad rate. More than 4,000 furious e-mails poured in to the Times.
Not only were congressional Democrats soon in full retreat but so were Times’ editors. On Sept. 23, the Times’ public editor, Clark Hoyt, concluded that the Times had violated its policies both on ad rates and on rejecting ads that are “outside the bounds of acceptable political discourse.”
In an article critical of the Times' actions, entitled “Betraying Its Own Best Interests,” Hoyt wrote, “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.’”
Hoyt also reported that the Times should have charged MoveOn $142,083 for a full-page ad when a client is guaranteed that an ad will run on a specific day. (The discount rate should apply if the ad were treated as a stand-by that could be bumped.)
As it turned out, the Times also had agreed to run an ad from Republican presidential candidate Rudolph Giuliani on Sept. 14, attacking both the MoveOn ad and Democratic contender Hillary Clinton. Giuliani was given the $64,575 discount rate, although that also would appear to have violated the Times’ ad-rate policies.
For its part, MoveOn now has volunteered to pay the Times the full ad rate, sending a check for an additional $77,000, a sum that presumably comes from donations that anti-war activists made to MoveOn, partly in defense of its Petraeus ad.
In other words, MoveOn has taken $142,083 from American donors and given it to the New York Times for the privilege of running an ad that served to undermine the goal of reining in President Bush’s Iraq War. Talk about getting a reverse bang for your buck.
(By contrast, for many independent media outlets, the cost of that one ad would cover all their expenses for a year or more. In 2006, the entire budget of our Web site, Consortiumnews.com, was $109,000.)
Another negative lesson that the Times appears to have learned is that it must apply a double standard when accepting ads.
If you are a Bush favorite, such as Gen. Petraeus, public editor Hoyt thinks you should be granted immunity from harsh criticism. However, if you’re a Bush enemy, the Times is still happy to run ads condemning you in the nastiest possible terms.
Just one day after Hoyt objected to “attacks of a personal nature,” the Time ran a full-page ad from a pro-Bush advocacy group, Freedomswatch.org, with the headline “Ahmandinejad Is a Terrorist.” The ad also denounced Columbia University for allowing the Iranian president to give a speech.
“Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad threatens our nation and the freedoms we value,” the ad reads. “He has supported attacks on our soldiers and our allies. He should be treated as the terrorist that he is.” [NYT, Sept. 24, 2007]
Presumably, in green-lighting this ad, the Times editors feared a hostile right-wing reaction if they had said no or demanded softer language.
While few Americans would defend Ahmadinejad or even note that many of these harsh statements have not been proven, it is this double standard – one set of rules for Bush’s enemies and another for Bush’s friends – that guided the U.S. march to war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 2002-03.
Yet, the only real hope against a repeat stampede – this time into an attack on Iran – is a principled stand by the American news media for a single standard of fairness. But that isn’t going to happen as long as editors and ad executives see their careers threatened when they allow something like the MoveOn ad.
To change that dynamic would require America’s Left to build a media infrastructure that can begin to match up with what the Right has created over the past three decades.
MoveOn has been one of the “progressive” organizations that has rejected the need for building a media infrastructure that can restore some balance to the U.S. political process.
In spring 2005, near the start of Bush’s second term, media activist Carolyn Kay presented a comprehensive media reform strategy to MoveOn founder Wes Boyd.
Boyd responded with an e-mail on April 24, 2005, saying, “Just to be direct and frank, we have no immediate plans to pursue funding for media … Our efforts are focused on a few big fights right now, because this is the key legislative season. Later in the year and next year I expect there will [be] more time to look further afield.”
Kay e-mailed Boyd back, saying, “For five years people have been telling me that in just a couple of months, we’ll start addressing the long-term problems. But the day never comes. … Today it’s Social Security and the filibuster. Tomorrow it will be something else. And in a couple of months it will be something else again. There’s never a right time to address the media issue. That’s why the right time is now.”
Boyd’s April 24 e-mail – calling the idea of addressing the nation’s media crisis as wandering “afield” – is typical of the views held by many leaders in the “progressive establishment.” There is no sense of urgency about media. [For more details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “The Left’s Media Miscalculation.”]
Instead, MoveOn continues to rely on ad buys in mainstream news outlets to get out its message, a strategy that now has proved both expensive and counter-productive.
[For more on how America's media imbalance developed, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege or our new book, Neck Deep.]
This article is republished in the Baltimore Chronicle with permission of the author.