Published on Monday, July 12, 2004 by the San Francisco Chronicle
Bay Area Group in Flap Over Anti-War Billboard
Clear Channel Kills Nonprofit's Ad for N.Y.'s Times Square
by Demian Bulwa, Leah Garchik
A group of prominent Bay Area women, including pioneering chef Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, is jousting with media giant Clear Channel Communications over a minimalist anti-war billboard they want to unfurl in New York City's Times Square amid flashy ads for Broadway shows, banks and sneakers.
Project Billboard, the women's nascent nonprofit, rented prime real estate on the Marriott Marquis Hotel on Broadway and then proposed an illustration of a cartoonish bomb draped with stars and stripes, accompanied by the words "Democracy is best taught by example, not by war."
It was supposed to run from Aug. 2 to Nov. 2, well-timed to a Republican National Convention starting Aug. 30 in Manhattan and the presidential election Nov. 2 dominated by the conflict in Iraq.
The women say their group is nonpartisan and the design is "pro-democracy, pro-peace, and nothing more.'' But it was rejected last week by Clear Channel's Spectacolor division, which rents out more than 70 displays in Times Square, as well as by Marriott.
"We're just not going to run bomb copy in New York City,'' said Paul Meyer, president and chief executive of Clear Channel Outdoor -- which oversees the Spectacolor division -- Sunday afternoon.
While accusing Clear Channel of rejecting the ad because the company favors the Bush administration, the women on Friday changed course, turning the bomb into a dove. They were told they would have a response sometime this week.
But with a Thursday deadline looming for them to finalize a design -- and with Clear Channel suggesting it also didn't like the phrase "not by war'' -- the women decided to file a breach-of-contract lawsuit in U.S. District Court in New York today. They allege they were never told they couldn't cover political ground.
The fast-moving controversy, though, took another turn Sunday night when Meyer said he found out from Spectacolor officials that Clear Channel had approved the second design, and was awaiting word from Marriott, which he said has the right to reject any ad on its facade.
"In the contract, they represented they owned these billboards. There was never another layer of approval," said Baifang Schell of Project Billboard, who is married to Orville Schell, dean of the school of journalism at UC Berkeley.
Schell and two other Project Billboard founders, Deborah Rappaport and Amy Harmon, flew to New York on Sunday morning to go to court and keep negotiating. Another member of the group, Laurene Powell Jobs, is married to Apple Computer co-founder Steve Jobs.
New York Marriott Marquis spokeswoman Kathleen Duffy said Sunday that the hotel management considered the first proposal by Project Billboard to be inappropriate because of the bomb image and said the hotel was led to believe the ad would simply encourage people to vote.
She said management had not seen the dove design yet.
"I'm constantly shocked by how there is such an effort to really prevent people from contemplating the difficult issues of our time,'' Waters said. "The message of the sign was trying to get people to think about this. And clearly, it's not what the powers-that-be want people to do.''
But Meyer said Sunday that the company reserves the right to reject advertising for any reason. He said advertising is rejected routinely for being indecent or offensive, or because the business owner simply doesn't want the sign on his property. But, he said, the problem is never partisan politics.
"Never has anyone said to me from Clear Channel corporate that I should or should not put up copy because of its political ramifications,'' Meyer said. "That's contrary to the principles of the company -- we're in the business of maximizing profits for our shareholders.
"I'd love to get the Democrats' spending, the Republican spending and the Nader spending,'' he said.
The billboard flap pits a group of influential, well-heeled and progressive Bay Area women, many of them Democratic Party contributors, against a Fortune 500 company that is responsible for quite a bit of what Americans see and hear.
Clear Channel, of San Antonio, owns or operates 1,270 radio stations and 39 television stations in the United States and has 776,000 outdoor advertising displays worldwide. Some critics have accused Clear Channel, whose top executives and political action committee have given heavily to Republicans, of using radio airwaves and other far-reaching assets to push its views.
According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, D.C., as of the end of May, the company's PAC this year had given $170,000 to U.S. House and Senate candidates, with 70 percent going to Republicans.
Peter Scheer, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition in San Rafael, an advocacy group for freedom of expression and open government, said that Clear Channel's rejection of the ad was "obnoxious to the First Amendment,'' but that the company was probably on firm legal ground because it's private.
"But Clear Channel is a huge corporation. ... I think one could argue that it's gotten so big that it could have forced on it responsibilities much like those that a government agency would have,'' Scheer said. "Obviously, it's engaged in censorship here, and it is the worst kind of censorship because it is based directly on the content of the message.''
"That's a specious theory,'' Meyer responded. "To my knowledge, there's no law that supports that.''
Project Billboard was launched last year, with its founders saying they want to foster open national debate on important issues and support diversity, tolerance and free expression. It signed a contract with Clear Channel Spectacolor last December for $368,000, not including production and installation costs.
In an e-mail to Barry Kula, Spectacolor's vice president of sales and marketing, Rappaport said: "Our billboard does not support or oppose a particular candidate, government officer, or political party. ... Nor do we believe that a reference to war is somehow 'distasteful' to the community.''
Meyer said the decision to reject the ad was made independently by the Spectacolor division. But he said the company generally does not run copy that would be unsuitable for children or cause them to ask difficult questions, nor does it run political attacks that could be considered "personally offensive.''
"We err on the side of rejecting the copy,'' he said.
© Copyright 2004 San Francisco Chronicle