The New York Times
(September 2007)

Most Ethics Scoreboard Liars of the Month involve stupid, obvious or trivial lies told by show business figures or politicians, those in professions where the lack of integrity is an occupational hazard. Not so September 2007's Liar, The New York Times. Its lie is a strong indication of bias, lack of professional standards, hypocrisy and ethical rot where our democracy can least afford it, in the management of its most prestigious and influential national newspaper. Whether one is a reader and fan of the Times or not, this should concern and sadden us all.

The background: On September 10, the day General Petraeus delivered his much-anticipated report to Congress on the progress of U.S. "surge" strategy in Iraq, the Times ran a full page ad by MoveOn.org. The ad was juvenile and uncivil even by the abysmal standards of MoveOn, mocking the distinguished career military leader as "General Betray Us" and declaring him to be a liar and a fraud (this was before he had even delivered his report). Since its inception, MoveOn has maintained that anyone who disagrees with its view of the world is lying and driven by sinister motives. But because the group's typical vilification and name-calling tactics had been focused this time on an honorable general during wartime, the backlash over the ad was momentous. Republicans, predictably, attacked it as exceeding the bounds of respectable political speech. Democrats found its tone offensive.

Then it was discovered that MoveOn had been able to get its ad published in the Times at a discounted rate: $64,575 instead of $142,083. Conservatives, Republicans and journalistic ethics gadflies wanted to know how and why. For if the Times gave MoveOn a special break, this was not only smoking gun evidence of the paper's anti-Bush liberal bias; it was also a variety of political contribution that violated the very same election reforms that the Times had championed in its editorials.

"No," said the Times ad people. "You don't understand: MoveOn got the usual "stand-by" discount, the price for a full page ad that runs when there is space for it, not on a particular day." And this was the position of the Times for two solid weeks, as the Senate voted to condemn the ad, war opponents accused Republicans of making the Times the target of a witch hunt, and the conservative blogosphere clamored for an investigation.

Times ombudsman Clark Hoyt did investigate, as is his duty. He determined that indeed, MoveOn had been given the stand-by rate for an ad that was not stand-by, but rather very time sensitive. It ran on the day it was designed to run, the day Petraeus was testifying. Hoyt also found that the ad violated the Times' advertising acceptability manual provision that states, "We do not accept opinion advertisements that are attacks of a personal nature." Hoyt interviewed the decision-makers involved and published his findings in a column entitled "Betraying Its Own Best Interests."

The response of the Times to the revelation of its unethical conduct was the response of Richard Nixon, Sandy Berger, Bill Clinton, "Duke" Cunningham, Michael Vick, "Scooter" Libby, Pete Rose, Ken Lay and Cardinal Law: "We made a mistake."

That was accurate, to be sure. But it was a mistake that an ethical newspaper doesn't make, even once, and a mistake that the paper compounded into a fiasco that stripped away any pretense of integrity. For the Times to distort the fee schedule to give support to an issue ad because its message was consistent with the supposedly neutral paper's ideological preferences…that was bad. Worse was for the paper to ally itself with a disreputable and habitually dishonest partisan advocate like MoveOn. Worse still was aiding and abetting an unfair personal attack on a national military leader before he had been given a chance to testify, in violation of the paper's own policies. But worst of all was covering it up….telling colleagues in the media that everything was by the book, when it was not.

Newspapers can publish dumb and offensive commentary; they can be guilty of shoddy reporting, lousy writing and bias; they can make typos, get facts wrong, miss the point and pass along their staff's ignorance and misconceptions to their readers. They all do this every day. The good ones do less of it, and strive to be accurate, wise, fair and clear. It's a job that is as tough as it is crucial, and missteps are inevitable.

But a newspaper has to be dedicated to telling the truth every second of its existence, even if its own view of the truth may be incorrect some of the time. A newspaper that can't be trusted to make every effort to tell the truth is no longer qualified to be a newspaper. Jason Blair was a Times reporter who made up stories, and the fact that the Times trusted him for so long while he was lying put a terrible gash in its reputation. Still, once the paper knew he was a liar, he was dismissed.

The MoveOn episode doesn't involve a corrupt reporter; it involves a corrupt institution with an unethical culture. With ethics rules that forbid reporters and columnists to contribute to political organizations, the Times advertising department made an unethical contribution to a political organization and tried to cover it up. Did the Times seek an internal investigation, once the questions began? No! Hoyt revealed in his column that he was asked to determine what happened by a pro-war group, FreedomsWatch.org. The Times, in short, wasn't interested in telling the truth.

That is because the evident truth is this: the Times has allowed its principles and judgement to be corroded by arrogance, partisan bile and groupthink. It is darkly amusing to recall how the hoard of left-leaning columnists on the Times op-ed page all piously condemned the recent acquisition of the Wall Street Journal by Rupert Murdoch because he couldn't be trusted to keep the Journal's content "independent" and free of distortion. After all, they pointed out, there are really only two prestigious national newspapers in America---the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal--- and now readers can't trust one of them.

They were right about that. But it is the crumbling Times, not Murdoch's Journal, that has proven that it can no longer be trusted.

Note: there are several other side-issues to this story that warrant passing mention:

  1. The Senate vote condemning of the MoveOn ad was a crude political stunt. Idiotic and offensive though it was, the MoveOn ad was legitimate police speech, no more and no less. The U.S. Senate should not be condemning opinions and ads because of their political content.

  2. MoveOn sent the Times the money it had saved in the illicit discount, and claims that it had no idea that it was being undercharged. The Scoreboard has no reason to doubt its story, other than being aware that the organization has been willing to shade the truth before, and being curious why a newspaper would give an organization a gift of $77, 508 and not let the organization know it was getting a gift.

  3. Two statements by Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher of The Times and chairman of its parent company, were significant. According to Hoyt, he "declined to name the salesperson or to say whether disciplinary action would be taken." If this were a news story about another paper, say the Washington Post, the Times would publish the name of the salesperson as a matter of course. The Times is still hiding the facts. And if it is not going to discipline the people responsible for what could be a textbook example of conduct creating "the appearance of impropriety," then it still hasn't grasped the ethical principles involved.

Sulzberger also said this:

"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." 

With all due respect, this is self-serving doubletalk. The Times "erred" on the side of giving "greater voice"---and cheaper voice---to "people" its biased staff agreed with, because those "people" were attacking policies and policy-makers the Times staff didn't like.

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