Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

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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 ...


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.



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.

A few days ago I said that the Democrats have yet to really understand what it means to be or act like a true party of opposition. I mean many things by this, which I hope to explore in the coming weeks and months. But in this case, for what we're discussing on the site now, I'm referring to how opposition can enable reformism.

Before 1994 and, to a lesser degree, before 2000, Democrats simply weren't in a position to adopt a genuine reform agenda because they were too implicated in the institutional corruption, the money chase, that is modern Washington. They could want change in some abstract way and they push for it at the margins. But their way of doing business on the Hill and in Washington generally was inseparable from it. It's how they ran Congress; it was how they raised their money to win elections; their friends (and that means personal and professional friends) who'd already cycled into the lobbying sector made their money from it; and many or most of them expected eventually to do the same.

I know this paints with a broad brush; and in some ways it may paint an ungenerous picture. But it is in most respects accurate.

For some years after 1994 congressional Democrats understandably acted as though they were the natural majority just temporarily displaced. So all those tendencies remained. And, as I noted above, to a lesser degree, they persisted through 2000 because holding the White House created parallel dynamics.

But now none of those are true. And the Democrats’ exclusion not just from power but from the money and lobbying game is far greater than that which the Republicans faced when they were in the minority.

There are two reasons for this: one structural and one political.

First, when the Democrats were in the majority, the two parties roughly split the money. By and large, business gave money to the Dems because they had power and to the Republicans because of their policies. That doesn’t mean there weren’t lots of pro-business Democrats, both in good ways and bad. But that basic paradigm captures the pre-1994 reality, particularly for the last ten to twenty years of the Dems’ majority. Once the Dems lost their majority and seemed destined for a long period out of power, political money swung strongly in the Republicans' favor.

Second, folks like Tom DeLay, Grover Norquist and others have worked diligently for the last decade to turn K Street into an arm of the Republican machine. That has meant telling trade groups and industry lobbies in no uncertain terms not to hire Democrats. Do so and you’ll be blackballed, is the message.

Placing Republican soldiers (ex-Hill staffers, pols, and operatives) as heads of the major trade organizations not only gives the GOP machine a finer control over K Street --- its money-giving, its political influence and its capacity to make trouble --- it also creates a ready source of patronage, a source of high-salaried jobs where political talent and loyalists can be placed before they move on to their next task. This is the nuts-and-bolts of what people are talking about when they compare the GOP’s Washington machine to Tammany Hall and the urban political machines of old.

There are quite a few downsides to total exclusion from power in Washington; but there are a few upsides too. And one is the ability to push for genuine reform, to think seriously, creatively and (relatively) unrestrainedly about change (and not just ape it, as the Republicans did in the early ‘90s.) Yet, too many Democrats don't seem to see clearly enough that on this point politics and principle entirely coincide for them.

Let me finish on this note.

I’ve always been a bit sour and suspicious about that political creature homo goodgovernmentus, and the allure of a politics unconnected to interests or money or patronage. There is such a thing as ‘honest graft’, to use the phrase of the old city machines. Patronage and political machines can and often do help to shape politics in beneficial ways. And to me getting good results in legislation and governance is much more important than the purity of how those results are achieved. At their worst good government or clean government types put the niceties of process and purity over the good legislation. (That's one reason why reformism has often had a hard time escaping an elitist coloration.)

But American history goes in cycles; the tide of institutional corruption ebbs and flows. And one needn’t indulge in naïve fantasies that the power of money or interests or greed can ever be expelled from politics to see that the pendulum has swung very far in their direction at the moment and that their influence can and must be restrained far more than they presently are.

Just as you can’t prevent barnacles from fixing themselves to the hulls of ships that doesn’t mean that you don’t periodically scrape them off when they become wildly overgrown.

Right now the hull of the ship of state is horribly overgrown with barnacles and all manner of other moneyed and interested crustaceans. And just as it makes no sense to let positive change be stymied by a too fastidious concern with clean political process, we’re now at the point where the dirtiness of politics --- or rather the institutional corruption, no, the legalized prostitution that our politics now is --- makes progressive legislation in the public interest close to impossible. All the more reason for Democrats to yoke together their values and their political interest and become a genuine party of reform.

More reader response ...

Public review of bills: Having worked in government relations for a major corporation, I can tell you without hesitation: Big business would hate it and it would help cleanse the process (reduced pork and hidden deals ) and return the media to a role more in keeping with the framers' intent.

Greg F.

More to follow ...

A personal and professional note: I would be remiss if I did not mention that as of today the TPM world headquarters has relocated from Washington, DC to New York. I've actually been spending the majority of my time here for a few months. So you shouldn't notice any great difference. And I'll be in DC regularly. (In fact, I'm training down this evening.) But this is now the home base.