The American Conservative Union went so far as to file a complaint with the Federal Elections Commission, claiming that MoveOn and the New York Times Co. violated the "Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, as amended, and the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002."
But at the end of the week, when his campaign took out an ad in the Times advocating the opposite point of view, Giuliani paid the going rate for a full-page standby ad in the Times: $65,000.
A primer on newsprint ad buys
The buzz these ads generated certainly represents, from a media marketing standpoint, a show of strength by print. But it also suggests we might be able to use a primer on what exactly happened and how newspaper ads are really bought and sold.
MoveOn told ABC's Jake Tapper that the group paid $65,000 for a Sept. 10 ad accusing General David Petraeus of "cooking the books for the White House" in his status reports on Iraq. The Times rate card implies that weekday, full-page, black-and-white cause, appeal or political ads cost $181,692.
A post on the blog Confederate Yankee soon noted the disparity. "While I'm fairly certain that nobody pays 'sticker' prices, 61% off seems a rather sweet deal," his post said. The New York Post picked up the story yesterday, running a piece headlined "Times Gives Lefties a Hefty Discount for 'Betray Us' Ad" and followed up with another article and an editorial today. "Citing the shared liberal bias of the group and the Times," the Post wrote, "one Republican aide on Capitol Hill speculated that it was the 'family discount.'"
Mr. Giuliani, speaking in Atlanta yesterday, demanded that the Times apologize and offer him the same price.
But MoveOn bought its ad on a "standby" basis, under which it can ask for a day and placement in the paper but doesn't get any guarantees. Standby pricing doesn't appear on the Times rate card -- but that kind of ad at a standby rate turns out to run about $65,000.
And that's what the Giuliani campaign paid as well, according to one person close to the Times, for its counter ad today berating MoveOn and, in turn, Hillary Clinton for refusing to denounce the "Betray Us" ad.
A campaign spokeswoman declined to say what the Giuliani campaign paid but said it was told by the newspaper that it was being charged the same standard rate MoveOn was charged. "This was an opportunity for the mayor to draw attention to what was an egregious ad that targeted Gen. Patraeus," she said. "It allowed us to defend him and point out that Democratic candidates have done nothing to condemn the MoveOn.org ad about an American hero."
Mr. Giuliani has assembled a pretty experienced media team, including agencies such as Scott Howell & Associates, which says it has a 15-year record of success with clients such as President George W. Bush, the Republican National Committee and the Republican Governor's Association. It seems fair to assume that somebody there knows this much about newspaper buys: Almost nobody pays the prices that newspapers list on their rate cards or in their media kits.
Rates not based on content
Catherine Mathis, a spokeswoman for the Times, said the paper does not set or adjust rates based on the political content of any ads. "The advertising department, they don't see the ad before the rate is quoted," she said. "There is an individual who is in charge of advertising acceptability, but our acceptance or rejection of an ad does not depend on whether it coincides with our editorial page's positions. There are many instances when we have published opinion advertisements that run counter to the stance we take on the editorial pages."
What all this really makes clear is that the Giuliani camp and MoveOn both know the value of public relations. The dust-up over the ad generated tons of media impressions for both sides, including press reports by not only the Post but also outlets including MSNBC.com, Reuters, Drudge, The Washington Post, USA Today and the Times itself.
"Clearly the right wing is energized around this, but they are repeating our message when they are mentioning it," said Eli Pariser, MoveOn's executive director.
Happily for publishers, moreover, the ad became the latest piece of evidence that print can set the news agenda.
MoveOn's next ad buy starts next week, when it will use a TV spot to accuse President Bush of engaging in a "betrayal of trust." A similarly themed black-and-white print ad is slated to appear in the Times.