CBS has sold commercial time in the Super Bowl to fast food companies selling hamburgers, companies who sell beer, and a Christian advocacy group called Focus On The Family. What could they be selling? The content of the Focus On The Family ad is openly anti-abortion rights and features a famous college football player, Tim Tibow of the University of Florida, previously best known for wearing Bible citations prominently displayed on his glare protectors – those little black pasties some players wear on their cheeks under their eyes to keep the sunshine out. It is estimated that the cost for this 30-second commercial will be at least $2.5 million. Who is really paying for this? The buyer is saying that “a handful of generous friends” are making this ad possible. Focus On The Family is, naturally, a tax exempt, non-profit religious organization. So, in a very real sense you can say that you are helping to pay for this little piece of television propaganda. Since your taxes have to make up for the taxes Focus On The Family doesn’t pay, yes you are footing the bill for them and adding to the revenue at CBS.
As a former broadcaster, I do not feel that advocacy ads (that’s the phrase now in vogue for what is otherwise “propaganda”) have any place in commercial broadcasting. When I was the General Manager of a radio station I had a strict policy that all advertisers had to use their commercial time to sell whatever product or service they offered to the public. The only exception I made was at Christmas when advertisers were allowed to use their time to extend holiday wishes to the listening audience. Other than that – if you sold burgers, your commercials had to be about burgers; if you sold cars, they had to be about your cars… you could say anything you wanted about your business and nothing about anything else… you get the idea.
There were times when certain advertisers wanted to “hitch a ride” on timely issues of public interest. For example, years ago we had a series of terrible child murders and a large, chain operated fast-food company wanted to use its commercials to advertise their donations to a fund for the affected families. I rejected this idea. In the spirit of disclosure, I should add that my station was alone in my city in refusing to run these commercials. I didn’t reject this company making donations. I applauded their good intentions. I just wouldn’t let them use their “generosity” as part of their commercials to influence my station’s listeners. They were selling food – not charity. Some people disagreed with me. I thought I was right then, and I still do.
In 2004 CBS rejected an ad for that year’s Super Bowl from another advocacy group, MoveOn.org. The fact that they’ve sold time this year to Focus On The Family seems to show that CBS approves of anti-abortion ads – although the legal right to an abortion is the law of the land according to the Supreme Court – but they object to ads critical of the President (if the President is George W. Bush as he was in 2004) – although criticism of the President (no matter who he may be) is also perfectly legal and constitutionally protected, just like the right to an abortion.
CBS made a choice, twice. Good for them. That is what a responsible broadcaster should do. However, it is not CBS alone who is legally charged with making these decisions. Broadcasting on the public airwaves has been regulated by the federal government since 1934. There's nothing new here. Commercial regulation rightly belongs with the federal government. That is what a responsible FCC and Congress should do. It's the law.
The Supreme Court has declared that just about anyone can spend just about any amount of money they wish to express just about any opinion they happen to favor or to oppose any they don’t like. The Court has ruled that there is indeed a constitutional right “to spend.” Money talks. Freedom of speech. Someday, soon perhaps, you may see an advocacy ad supporting or attacking a candidate for public office, a bit of TV propaganda with a disclosure statement saying... "paid for by a few generous friends."Just like Focus On The Family. Maybe "a few generous friends" can swing an election. How will you feel about that?
There may be a right "to spend" but, as yet there is no constitutional right “to buy.” Just ask MoveOn.org. They had millions in cash ready to hand over to CBS for 30 little seconds. CBS said, “No. You’re not welcome.” Now, Focus On The Family wants the very same exact access to the very same program, to the largest television audience in America, on the Super Bowl, and CBS said, “Yes. Show me the money!”
It’s time for the FCC, or if necessary for Congress itself, to prohibit all third-party, non-commercial, so-called advocacy ads. The airwaves still belong to the public, despite the fact that we “license” them and persist in calling those “licenses” ownership. The FCC regulates many things on-the-air. Remember Janet Jackson at the Super Bowl? There were fines - big fines - for that mishap. The FCC bans pornography. I think “advocacy ads” or social propaganda – are more pornographic than an all too brief look at Janet Jackson's beautiful breast.