Published on Thursday, January 29, 2004 by Capitol Hill Blue
CBS: The Censor Broadcast System
by Paul Campos
This Sunday, the more than 100 million Americans watching the Super Bowl will see advertisements encouraging them to buy no less than three different drugs designed to combat erectile dysfunction.
They will see ads paid for by tobacco litigation money -- which is to say by smokers -- and brought to us by the officious busybodies at the American Legacy Foundation. (The ALF is responsible for those obnoxious ads that assume Americans are such idiots that we need to be bombarded with reminders that cigarette smoking is bad for our health.)
The Super Bowl audience will be implored to buy gas-guzzling cars and brain-numbing beer, and more generally to consume mass quantities of stuff. What they will not see is an award-winning ad that criticizes the Bush administration. The advertisement, created by Charlie Fisher of Denver, is, as political ads go, exceptionally understated.
The 30-second spot features a montage of several small children shown working at the sorts of jobs they are likely to be doing decades from now, while guitar music strums peacefully in the background. The screen is then filled with this message: "Guess who's going to pay off President Bush's $1 trillion deficit?"
This ad was rejected by CBS, which is broadcasting the Super Bowl, as "too controversial." (My brother, who let me know about this controversy, speculates that the decision is based on the Roman law doctrine that "there is to be no criticism of the Emperor during the Circus.")
This egregious bit of censorship is made all the more obnoxious by the fact that CBS will air an advertisement during the game from the White House's own Office of Drug Policy, which, in appropriately Orwellian fashion, will encourage teenagers to rat out their pot-smoking friends to Big Brother.
The White House's ad follows on the heels of the Office of Drug Policy's memorable 2002 Super Bowl advertisement, which claimed that people who use drugs (not, apparently, including erectile dysfunction drugs) are supporting terrorism. That particularly idiotic moment in the war on drugs wasn't too "controversial" to be unleashed on the public during America's annual pigskin pageant.
Some readers may remember that, in the wake of the 2002 ad, a group led by Arianna Huffington sponsored advertisements suggesting that people who drive SUVs are supporting terrorism: a claim that actually isn't quite as absurd as the claim made in the earlier White House ad. Several television stations declined to run these ads, on the grounds that they were-- you guessed it -- "too controversial."
Decisions of this sort are more than monuments to hypocrisy and double standards. Because those who have the right to broadcast over them have in effect a monopoly on the television airwaves, the television networks are regulated closely by the federal government. By law, the networks hold their broadcast rights in trust, and are thus obligated to do business in a way that is mindful of the public interest.
CBS doesn't serve the public interest when it rejects an otherwise appropriate advertisement because, in the opinion of the network's managers, the ad's message is too politically controversial. This is especially the case when the network broadcasts equally controversial political advertisements, during the same program for which the rejected ad was intended.
Given that CBS is regulated so heavily, and that indeed at this moment major legislation is pending that critics argue will unduly enhance the network's market share, is it possible that "too politically controversial" really means "harmful to CBS's corporate interests?" One need not be a cynic to suspect that, as a great American journalist used to put it, "that's the way it is."
(Paul Campos is a professor of law at the University of Colorado. His e-mail address is Paul.Campos@Colorado.edu.)
© Copyright 2004 by Capitol Hill Blue