In 2007, when The New York Times granted MoveOn.org a special discount it wasn't entitled to so they could slam David Petraeus in a full-page ad as "General Betray Us," NPR reported on the ad, but never on the Times cut-rate controversy.
But NPR is sometimes very sensitive about the "independence" of media outlets -- when it seems compromised by Republicans. On Tuesday's All Things Considered, they granted air time to KUOW reporter Sara Lerner in Washington state to discuss how the Seattle Times outrageously used their own free ad space for an favoring the Republican running for governor, and how 100 of the paper's journalists were protesting:
SARA LERNER: The ads are in support of one Washington state gubernatorial candidate, Republican Rob McKenna, and a state referendum that would legalize same-sex marriage. Seattle Times spokesperson Jill Mackie says the paper is running the ads to prove a point: That political advertising in newspapers can make a difference, at a time when the bulk of campaign money goes to broadcast television.
JILL MACKIE: This is a sector of advertisers that we are not a part of, and so this is really a pilot project to determine whether or not we can gain a piece of the spending in political advertising to support journalism.
LERNER: The paper is giving up about $150,000 total worth of ad space for both ad campaigns. That's money The Seattle Times had to report as actual campaign contributions. The day after the first political ad ran, 100 of the paper's journalists sent the publisher a letter of protest. None of them would speak on tape, but here's a portion of the letter, read by an actor.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We strive to remain independent from the institutions we cover. We shine a light on the process from the outside. We are not part of the process. This ad campaign threatens to compromise that integrity.
LERNER: The reporters went on to say these ads threaten their independence and credibility.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We are now part of a campaign's machinery, creating a perception that we are not an independent watchdog.
LERNER: In fact, The Seattle Times recently published a story which fact-checks some of the claims made in the political ads: ads in its own paper. And the reporters find mistakes. Roy Peter Clark is an ethicist with the media organization the Poynter Institute. He shares some of the concerns expressed by The Times' staff in its protest letter.
ROY PETER CLARK: You have to pay special attention to the most vulnerable stakeholders. It's not the readers or the business side or the newspaper in general. It's not the politicians who, I think, are the most vulnerable here. It's the rank-and-file reporter and editor who has the burden of trying to cover these issues and these candidates impartially.
LERNER: Clark says print newspapers do need to find creative ways to make money, and that's perfectly evident here in Seattle, where news consumers are still feeling the sting from the loss of the Post-Intelligencer newspaper three years ago. It ended its print edition and dramatically downsized. But Clark says this isn't the way to generate revenue.
At least the opinion page of the Times is not being shy about its agreement with the gay-marriage ads. The Times has a social-media campaign (including its Facebook page) for gay marriage. Don't miss Times publisher Frank Blethen holding up the "I do" sign.
On the September 18, 2007 Morning Edition, NPR media reporter David Folkenflik reported on the Times ad as a linguistic triumph for MoveOn.org, and skipped over the ethical issues. This aired days after the Times ad controversy erupted:
FOLKENFLIK: When General David Petraeus went to Capitol Hill to testify last week, he was greeted by a full-page MoveOn ad in the New York Times that saddled him with an unwanted nickname.
Dr. GEORGE LAKOFF (Cognitive Linguistics, University of California, Berkeley): You can't think General Petraeus without saying betray-us.
FOLKENFLIK: That's the liberal linguist George Lakoff. Lakoff says voters respond viscerally to charges of betrayal because it suggests their trust was abused. The ad was much rougher than the formal questions lawmakers directed at the general.
LAKOFF: MoveOn was saying something important: That you have to break through the politeness in order to actually say something real.
FOLKENFLIK: Lakoff, who was serving as an informal adviser to the group, says the sharp language allows Democrats and others who object to the war to challenge it more aggressively, even without going as far as MoveOn did.
There were no ethics experts from the liberal Poynter Institute to lament that this ad break compromised the integrity of the Pentagon beat reporter and editor who had to try to cover this controversy impartially. (As if The New York Times covered anything impartially.)
NPR also reported on the controversy when the Senate brought up a resolution denouncing the MoveOn ad as a slur on our military. As Don Gonyea reported on Weekend All Things Considered on October 23,2007: "Of the Democratic senators running for president, Hillary Clinton and Christopher Dodd voted against the GOP resolution. Senators Barack Obama and Joseph Biden did not vote."
Earlier, from 2010: MoveOn.org Removes 'General Betray Us' Ad from Website