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A grateful CBS pays its White House dues

Media activist Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, can think of several hundred million reasons why CBS refused to accept a 30-second ad by the liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org for this Sunday’s Super Bowl.

"Bush just saved Viacom hundreds of millions of dollars," says Chester, referring to CBS’s parent company. "Rejecting this ad is a small price to pay for this huge boon."

By this past Monday, MoveOn reported that more than 320,000 of its members had called or e-mailed CBS to protest its decision to reject the ad. But there is no indication that the network is going to back down.

Recently MoveOn.org staged something called "Bush in 30 Seconds," a contest that encouraged budding filmmakers to critique the presidency of George W. Bush. (The competition made news earlier this month when an entry comparing Bush to Adolf Hitler briefly slipped through the cracks. See "Political Attack," This Just In, January 9.)

The winner, titled "Child’s Pay," is a professional-looking ad that shows children working at a variety of blue-collar and service jobs: sweeping a hallway, chucking garbage bags, clerking at a check-out counter. Toward the end appears this message: GUESS WHO’S GOING TO PAY OFF PRESIDENT BUSH’S $1 TRILLION DEFICIT? CBS rejected the commercial, citing its long-standing policy of refusing to run "advocacy" ads.

Some critics have pointed out that the 100 million or so Super Bowl viewers will see a taxpayer-funded commercial from the White House anti-drug office, which could also be construed as advocacy. But Martin Franks, an executive vice-president at CBS News, told the New York Times that the policy is meant to apply to "matters of the public debate where there are discernible sides," and not to non-controversial messages such as opposition to the abuse of illegal drugs.

CBS also provided itself with some cover by rejecting — along with "Child’s Pay" — an ad from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). The PETA ad features two scantily clad women (okay, not much different from a beer commercial), a close-up of a male crotch, leering innuendoes about his "sausage," and a message — MEAT CAN CAUSE IMPOTENCE — that, if perhaps not quite false, is certainly grotesquely exaggerated. The PETA ad, in other words, seems to have been designed with rejection in mind, the better to call attention to the organization.

The MoveOn.org ad, on the other hand, is neither offensive nor based on dubious claims. And even if, as Franks suggests, it more clearly meets the definition of "advocacy" than an anti-drug message, so what? MoveOn.org sought to purchase time on the public airwaves, just like Anheuser-Busch, Frito-Lay, and General Motors, to name three companies whose commercials will appear this Sunday.

"The message of our issue ad is a simple statement of fact, supported by the president’s own figures," said MoveOn.org campaign director Eli Pariser in a statement earlier this week. "Compare it with some of CBS’s controversial ads, like the violent 2001 Super Bowl ads, and ‘Child's Pay’ hardly even registers on the controversy meter. CBS is just being subjective and arbitrary — or maybe it’s afraid of the Bush White House."

Or maybe it’s just grateful. Last year the Federal Communications Commission proposed raising the share of the national television audience that any one station owner can reach from 35 percent to 45 percent. The easing of that regulation would have benefited Viacom and Fox, both of which were in violation of the cap.

Congress, though, refused to go along, and threatened to pass the annual omnibus spending bill last fall with the 35 percent limit in place. The White House countered that if the limit were not raised at least to 39 percent — thus allowing Viacom and Fox to keep all their local stations — then Bush would veto the bill. Significantly, it was around this time that CBS canceled a miniseries on the Reagans that had drawn the ire of the Republican National Committee.

Thus it was no surprise that CBS rejected the MoveOn.org ad right around the time Congress was putting the finishing touches on a spending bill that included the 39 percent limit. Jeff Chester, referring to the cancellation of The Reagans and the rejection of the MoveOn.org ad, says, "The two decisions coincided with critical political decisions being made for their [Viacom’s] benefit by the GOP. CBS was doing due diligence for its patrons in the White House."

The solution, according to Chester: a new fairness doctrine that would require broadcasters to accept advocacy ads, "perhaps within the boundaries of public taste." Chester observes, "Clearly the public needs to have access to diverse points of view." And in an age of corporate-media monopoly, that’s not going to happen without some tough regulations.

But don’t hold your breath.

To view "Child's Pay," and to send an e-mail to CBS protesting its decision not to air the ad during the Super Bowl, visit MoveOn.org’s Web site, http://www.moveon.org/

Issue Date: January 30 - February 5, 2004
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