Published on Friday, February 6, 2004 by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer
CBS: Censoring Broadcast System
by Anthony B. Robinson
The game was great, one of the best. The Panthers and Patriots played their hearts out. But Super Bowl XXXVIII may be remembered less for the game itself than for what we got to see that we had not expected to see, as well as for what we didn't get to see that we had hoped we might.
In the latter category, it seems that Bono, the lead singer for the Irish rock group, U2, wanted to be on the halftime show bill but didn't make the cut. MTV and CBS thought the piece Bono wanted to sing, a song about the AIDS epidemic, was not appropriate for the occasion. One might be forgiven for wondering if MTV and CBS are to be trusted to determine what is, and what is not, appropriate.
Bono wasn't the only one banned.
MoveOn.org, an organization that opposes the war in Iraq, had its 30-second Super Bowl ad stricken from the broadcast for being too political, or at least for dealing with an issue that wasn't on the list of appropriate issues (drinking, smoking and doing drugs). The ad in question was an attack on the Bush administration for running up the national debt to all-time high levels. It showed small children laboring away in some factory to make the point that future generations are being saddled with an enormous burden that they will be working for a long, long time to pay off.
Given that Bono's song was inappropriate and MoveOn's ad too political, I thought it interesting that CBS' Super Bowl pre-game show included a lengthy interview with President Bush. This is not political?
The plot thickens. Remember last year's debate on the Federal Communication Commission's proposal to lift restrictions on the percentage of the television news outlets that could be owned by any one company? The FCC proposed rules that would have meant that one company could own stations reaching as much as 45 percent of the national audience. The limit had been 35 percent.
According to a report on Bill Moyer's show "NOW," the Senate blocked the FCC proposal last September. However, two months later, Senate Republicans and the White House reached agreement on a compromise that raised the limit to 39 percent. Just enough, as it turns out, to allow two particular media giants, Viacom and News Corp. (Fox), to keep all their stations.
Still with me? OK, who broadcast the Super Bowl and decided that neither Bono nor MoveOn was welcome at the party but that the president would be an honored guest? Why, CBS. And who owns CBS? Funny you should ask. Viacom owns CBS. Yes, the very same Viacom that was a prime beneficiary of White House pressure to allow a single media conglomerate to own enough television news outlets to reach 39 percent of the nation.
Do you think this could be political? Me, I'm not sure. But I have heard some smart people say, "If it walks like a duck, if it quacks like a duck, if it looks like a duck, chances are good it's a duck." Maybe the politics of the Super Bowl are a little more naughty than Janet Jackson's costume proved to be.
The larger issue, both in the FCC matter and in CBS' decision about which singers sing and which ads play, as well as pre-game interviews with the president, is a narrowing of acceptable public discourse, comment and ideas. While the share of the market controlled by such media giants as Viacom and Fox grows, the spectrum of allowable comment and ideas narrows. Bring on the beer, car and Viagra ads, but for heaven's sake, don't trouble us with anything that might provoke thought, let alone discomfort.
Since 9/11 patriotism itself seems to have taken on a new and narrower meaning. Patriotism no longer means love of one's country. It seems to mean agreement with the current administration and its policies. But this is to forget a very long and hallowed tradition in America, the tradition of a patriotism of dissent. This is a tradition that loves one's country enough to question its policies and actions. This is a tradition that understands that our greatest strength as a nation has been our willingness to examine our weaknesses.
Giving Bono and MoveOn the boot suggests an uptightness and a fearfulness that might be funny if it weren't so pathetic and dangerous. It does, however, help me to comprehend the incredible volume of ads for Viagra, Levitra and other "male function enhancement products" during the Super Bowl. If you're this uptight, chances are good that you're going to need help.
Chances are also good that this week at CBS someone is wishing they had taken up Bono on his offer to do the halftime show.
Anthony B. Robinson is senior minister at Plymouth Congregational Church: United Church of Christ in Seattle.
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