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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

James Tobin, the man at the center of the 2002 New Hampshire phone-jamming scandal and the regional head of Bush-Cheney '04, has been indicted.

I just spoke to a spokesman for CBS who walked me through their policy.

So here it is.

The network -- as opposed to affiliate stations -- runs no issue advocacy ads in cases where the issue is a matter of public debate. However, they will run political candidate ads.

Their policy of running candidate ads is pretty much moot since it seldom pays for a national candidate to spend money blanketing the whole country with an ad. But the spokesman said they will run them.

Then I asked about anti-smoking ads or the anti-drug ads paid for by the Office of National Drug Control Policy. The spokesman told me that the network does sometimes run these ads and does so in cases where the issue is not one of public controversy.

So, for instance, they might run an anti-smoking ad because no one disagrees that smoking is bad for your health, etc.

CBS's rationale for this policy, said the spokesman, is their desire not to let groups with "deep pockets" control the public debate through paid advertising.

I can think of a lot of reasons why this is neither a good nor a coherent policy. But that's their explanation of it.

Another point on the UCC/CBS ad issue.

What is striking about CBS's refusal (text quoted here) to air the ad is that they seem to go out of their way to use the weakest and most troubling rationale.

The CBS memo to the UCC includes three basic points.

1. The alleged policy of not running ads which address issue of public debate or controversy.

2. An alleged rule against ads from religious organizations which can be said in any way to proselytize.

3. And the fact that President Bush has recently called for a constitutional ban on gay marriage.

Reason #2 seems like the best argument (though it's pretty weak in itself). But the CBS memo specifically says that this isn't the reason they're rejecting it. Reason one, they say, was an entirely sufficient reason for rejecting the ad.

But having enunciated this bar against ads which discuss or take a position on any "current controversial issue of public importance" they then gratuitously add this line about President Bush's call for a constitutional ban on gay marriage.

Here's the text (emphasis added) ...

"Because this commercial touches on the exclusion of gay couples and other minority groups by other individuals and organizations, and the fact that the Executive Branch has recently proposed a Constitutional Amendment to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, this spot is unacceptable for broadcast on the [CBS and UPN] Networks."


I would think that the general rule, if evenly enforced, would be sufficient. I cannot think of any good reason why President Bush's (who's now apparently been renamed 'Executive Branch') stated position should have any bearing at all on whether the ad should run.

Can you?

As of noon on Wednesday, a quick look at Google News suggests that reporting on CBS's and NBC's refusal to run the United Church of Christ inclusion ad is almost entirely limited to the gay press (gaywired.com, 365gay.com, etc.). There's an AP story which has been picked up by the Akron Beacon Journal, but little else.

I'm looking now at the text of CBS's refusal to run the United Church of Christ ad and it's really astounding. It seems to me that there are two issues. First, whether they're applying their policy fairly and second, why they have such a ridiculous policy.

The memo says: "CBS/UPN Network policy precludes accepting advertising that touches on and/or takes a position on one side of a current controversial issue of public importance." It then goes on to say that the issue is exclusion of homosexuals and other minority groups and specifically references the president's call for a constitutional ban on gay marriage as reasons that the ad is "unacceptable."

CBS/UPN then adds the following. They "accept advertising from churches and religious organizations which deliver secular messages that are beneficial to society in general [but not] advertising that proselytizes on behalf of any single religion ... In our view, this commercial does proselytize."

The statement, however, makes clear that the first reason, rather than the second, is the reason they're rejecting the ad.

Now, let's take this in order.

Where to start? Has CBS ever run political advertising? Any political ad must by definition run afoul of their rule barring ads that take "a position on one side of a current controversial issue of public importance" unless they only run ads for candidates running in uncontested races.

Second, political speech is supposed to be the queen of the various sorts of speech. It is the most inherently socially valuable form of speech. And often the protection of various sorts of speech that many people find crude or distasteful is justified on the argument that one can't make hard and fast distinctions between narrowly political speech and speech which conveys broader cultural or social messages. Many theorists argue against any sort of hierarchy of different forms of speech for just these reasons -- but I'm not aware of one who argues that political speech should get the least protection. In any case, CBS's policy of excluding the most important kinds of speech seems ridiculous on its face and, as noted above, doesn't seem like a policy they can possibly be following.

And how about proselytizing? This actually seems like a marginally better argument than the one they claim is controlling. But a quick look at the ad makes that argument pretty dubious too since the ad is only prosyletizing in an extremely general sense.

We have calls in to CBS and NBC. We'll let you know what we hear.

Late Update: Has CBS ever run an anti-smoking ad? This isn't a rhetorical question but one that, again, would help show whether they're applying this rule fairly or arbitrarily. If you can think of other examples, let us know.

Doubting Thomas ...

Josh,

I’m a researcher who spends loads of time on Thomas [the congressional website which publishes the text of legislation and other information on Congress] and I can tell you with 100% certainty that…

1) Thomas is slow to update. Fast moving bills don’t get posted in a timely manner. I’m talking weeks and not days.

2) Certain bills or amendments “of interest” do not appear until they are (well) passed.

Thanks,

GM


Sounds right.

The United Church of Christ (UCC) plans to run a major ad campaign in December to raise public <$Ad$>awareness of the denomination. One of the ads is meant, in the words of a UCC press release, to convey the message "that -- like Jesus -- the United Church of Christ seeks to welcome all people, regardless of ability, age, race, economic circumstance or sexual orientation."

You can see the ad here -- it features two burly bouncers turning various people away from a church service. And if you watch it you'll see that the broad message of inclusion over intolerance places a prominent emphasis on acceptance of homosexuals in the life of the church.

Yet, according to a press release out this evening from the UCC, both CBS and NBC have refused to air the ad because the subject matter is "too controversial."

Again, look at the ad because the spot raises the topic in about as innocuous and uncontroversial a way as is imaginable. Homosexuality is never even broached explicitly.

(This case is similar to this instance last September when CNN refused to air an ad by the Log Cabin Republicans because it too was deemed "too controversial". In that case, at least the ad was hard-hitting. But even that feeble excuse doesn't apply in this case.)

According to the UCC press release, CBS explained its decision, in part, as follows ...

"Because this commercial touches on the exclusion of gay couples and other minority groups by other individuals and organizations," reads an explanation from CBS, "and the fact the Executive Branch has recently proposed a Constitutional Amendment to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, this spot is unacceptable for broadcast on the [CBS and UPN] networks."


(I'm unclear on why the CBS statement would speak for CBS and UPN. And at first I wondered whether the dispute was with an affiliate or a station owner who owns both CBS and UPN affiliates. But the press release seems quite specific and clear that the ads have been rejected by both the "CBS and NBC television networks.")

If this is really the case, we seem now to be in a country where political campaigns can be waged with flurries of ads replete with demonstrable falsehoods. And yet clear and tame political speech aimed at a pressing national debate isn't acceptable.

CBS's explanation seems to rest on the preposterous argument that because the ad addresses a major public debate that that makes it "unacceptable".

Or is it just that discussing homosexuality is "unacceptable"?

Late Update: As numerous more media-consolidation-savvy TPM readers have now pointed out to, Viacom owns both CBS and UPN, thus the joint refusal to air the ad.

A number of readers have pointed out that the text of numerous pieces of pending legislation is already available online on Thomas (which is, by the way, a very useful resource).

And that's true. Indeed, it's also true, as I understand it, that the three day rule is still in place. And since bills are public documents, which could easily be tossed up on the net, you might almost say that my proposal is already in place.

But of course the problem is that the rules are flouted when they really count, when the really unconscionable provisions are being added in at the last minute. If the shades can be drawn whenever the folks on the Hill want something hidden, then the rules are meaningless, a joke.

Yet again (from Reuters)...

Bush's current homeland security adviser, Frances Townsend, is one of the leading candidates to succeed Ridge. Another possible successor is Undersecretary Asa Hutchinson, analysts said.


That, or the guy who installed the alarm system at the ranch.

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