The ad became a flashpoint for many because it challenged the patriotism of an accomplished American soldier during wartime. But it also quickly became grist for presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani, who accused the Times of giving MoveOn sweetheart pricing to help advance a liberal agenda.
The Times initially defended the price paid by MoveOn, saying the group bought its ad on a "standby" basis, under which it can ask to run on a certain day but receives no guarantees. And when Mr. Giuliani demanded the same pricing for a counterattack ad, he got it.
If the MoveOn ad hadn't run as standby, the rate for the weekday, full-page, black-and-white cause, appeal or political ad should have been $181,692, according to the paper's rate card, which bloggers cited as proof that MoveOn got a big, undeserved discount. 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 election law.
With standard discounts and commissions, the Times says the net price for a non-standby ad is really closer to $142,000; on standby, the net price is the $64,575 that MoveOn actually paid.
Now it turns out the Times mishandled the MoveOn order, charging a standby rate for an ad that was definitely going to run on that Monday.
"When the customer asked for an ad rate and said that he wanted the ad to run on Monday, and the sales rep came back and provided a rate, that rate was equal to the standby rate," a Times spokeswoman said. "The sales rep should have said, 'This is a standby rate; your ad is likely to run on Monday, but if you want to guarantee it for Monday, the rate will be higher' -- in which case the client would have had the opportunity to say, 'Run it standby' or 'No, we'll go with the higher, guaranteed rate.'
"Instead what happened was the standby rate was given for an ad that we committed to run on Monday."
Not the last word
Despite the Times' sloppy handling of MoveOn's ad buy, it should be noted that newspapers' rate cards have never been the last word on prices. Negotiations, frequency or volume discounts, the standby option and other factors, including how many other ads have been sold for that day's paper, all figure into the final rate each advertiser pays.
MoveOn has said it will make up the difference "out of an abundance of caution" and called on Mr. Giuliani to pay the "corrected fee" also. The Giuliani campaign did not respond to a request for comment.