In response to the revelation that the New York Times discounted 60% off of purchase price for the MoveOn ad that attacked General David Petraeus as a traitor, some have argued that the Times can do anything it wants with its paper. These commenters and bloggers have “moved on” from the argument that MoveOn didn’t get a discount at all to a contradictory position that the Times can discount whenever and to whomever they desire.
Normally, I would agree. The Times has a responsibility to its shareholders to make profitable decisions, but the shareholders need to demand accountability for leaving almost $80,000 on the table in this deal. The Times also has a First Amendment right to its political speech and to free association — although we certainly also have the First Amendment right to criticize their speech and their associations.
However, the Times has been particularly active in demanding campaign-finance reform, especially supporting the more egregious portions of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. Just this past July, the editorial board excoriated the Supreme Court for its rollback of limitations on issues ads:
First, campaign finance. Four years ago, a differently constituted court upheld sensible provisions of the McCain-Feingold Act designed to prevent corporations and labor unions from circumventing the ban on their spending in federal campaigns by bankrolling phony “issue ads.” These ads purport to just educate voters about a policy issue, but are really aimed at a particular candidate.
The 2003 ruling correctly found that the bogus issue ads were the functional equivalent of campaign ads and upheld the Congressional restrictions on corporate and union money. Yet the Roberts court shifted course in response to sham issue ads run on radio and TV by a group called Wisconsin Right to Life with major funding from corporations opposed to Senator Russell Feingold, the Democrat who co-authored the act.
It opened a big new loophole in time to do mischief in the 2008 elections. The exact extent of the damage is unclear. But the four dissenters were correct in warning that the court’s hazy new standard for assessing these ads is bound to invite evasion and fresh public cynicism about big money and politics.
It takes a particularly high level of chutzpah to write this, and two months later, attempt to hide behind the First Amendment while making what qualifies as an in-kind donation to MoveOn. The Times has consistently argued against the First Amendment in campaign finance reform, pushing for legislation that limits Americans from advertising their political beliefs within sight of an election. The Gray Lady screeches about how nefarious advocates hide behind “issues” to target politicians — and yet subsidizes an ad from an advocacy group that attacks the honor of a military commander as an indirect attack on the White House.
It’s at least a measure of integrity that the Times’ own public editor didn’t float this argument in his column today. However, anyone who believes that the Times showed no hypocrisy and bias in giving this in-kind donation to MoveOn — a definition provided by the BCRA that the Times supports — either indulges in hypocrisy or ignorance themselves.
If the Times wants to subsidize ads from political groups they support, then they should argue also for an end to the BCRA and the nonsense it engenders. When that happens, we will at least get a straight answer for their editorial and advertising practices, and we will still have our First Amendment rights to criticize those as well.