Every so often clients call Richard Laermer, CEO of the entertainment and public interest P.R. film RLM, with what they think is a brilliant and novel idea. "I can't tell you how many times somebody has called me and said, 'Hey, I've got a great idea for a media attack. I want to put a naked person in an ad and try to run it in the New York Times, and they're going to turn it down and I'll release that they turned it down,'" he says. Censorship, Laermer has learned, can be its own kind of publicity.
If so, MoveOn.org might reap its dubious benefits. On Thursday, CBS rejected the winner of MoveOn's "Bush in 30 Seconds" ad contest. The online advocacy group was trying to buy airtime to run the commercial, which criticizes the Bush administration's run-up of federal debt, during the Super Bowl, a Feb. 1 event expected to draw 90 million viewers. The ad will run around 30 times on CNN from Jan. 17-21.
MoveOn's contest, which challenged members to capture the administration's depredations in homemade commercials, had already been tinged with controversy. Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee, denounced MoveOn after it emerged that two of more than a thousand contest entries posted on MoveOn's Web site compared President George W. Bush to Adolf Hitler.
The ad that won the contest, "Child's Pay," was a low-key attack on Bush's fiscal irresponsibility that's unlikely to make anyone very angry. But the Drudge Report's Matt Drudge further stoked right-wing rage by publishing a partial transcript of the awards ceremony MoveOn held in Manhattan Monday, which was full of denunciations of the president. One of the ceremony's performers, Margaret Cho, was soon after bombarded with messages like this one, from someone named Chris Smith: "F$@# you you oriental c$%& . you are not even an american. You are soooo stupid. Go f$@# yourself and go back to Asia you slanted eye whore."
Clearly, MoveOn has upset many on the right. But as Ad Age's Washington bureau chief Ira Teinowitz reported, CBS said it wasn't controversy that made it turn down MoveOn's commercial, and its $1.6 million. Instead, the network said the spot violates its policy against running any political issue ads at all.
"Ads which do not promote the selling of things basically are not welcome," says Eli Pariser, MoveOn's campaigns director. "The scary thing about it is that advertising at this point is one of the only ways you can even get access to the media. To have it restricted on the basis of viewpoints is dangerous."
Dangerous, perhaps, but common. CBS's policy is shared by ABC and NBC, and some cable channels, including MTV. Thus, every few years, an advocacy group will win a bit of notoriety when the networks refuse to sell it commercial airtime. In 1997, anti-consumerist activist Kalle Lasn was rejected when he tried to buy a Thanksgiving Day commercial promoting "Buy Nothing Day," his anti-shopping initiative. Last year, MTV refused to run an antiwar ad directed by Oscar-winning documentarian Barbara Kopple. This year, CBS also turned down a Super Bowl spot that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals tried to buy for $2 million. The rejected ad argues that eating meat causes impotence by clogging arteries. According to PETA, it "features a pair of scantily clad women who try to seduce the pizza man but discover that he can't deliver 'the sausage.' Things pick up when they test the prowess of a vegetarian delivery boy."
Groups can circumvent the network regulations by buying local airtime on network affiliates, which needn't adhere to their parent stations' policies. Yet buying up enough local airtime to reach a nationwide audience is far more expensive than buying the time on a network. And local stations can also refuse ads on political grounds. In December, for example, a New Hampshire ABC affiliate, WMUR, refused to run an ad from a union, the American Federation of Government Employees, that criticized the administration for giving no-bid contracts to campaign contributors like Halliburton. The station said the ad was potentially defamatory to Halliburton, even though the accusations it made echoed those from an internal Defense Department audit that accused the company of overcharging in Iraq."
There's no legal recourse for groups denied the chance to buy themselves a soapbox. Given the public nature of the airwaves, one might think that at least some First Amendment protections would obtain. In fact, though, there's no right to free speech on network TV, even for those who can pay for it.
"I can tell you exactly what the rules are," says Alex Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard. "The rules are exactly what the owner of the news medium wants them to be, and they are not rules, they are simply choices. For many news organizations, the rules are governed by such things as taste and accuracy. In the case of some, the question of taste slips over into finding the message disagreeable or believing that the audience would find that message disagreeable. The long and short of it is they don't have to run any advertisement they don't want to."
That also means the networks are free to bend their own rules against issue ads when the ads in question strike them as inoffensive. According to Teinowitz, CBS actually plans to run three such ads during the Super Bowl -- an anti-smoking spot, a public service announcement about AIDS, and a commercial from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Of course, the drug war is controversial to plenty of people, and the mere mention of AIDS upsets others, but the networks are under no obligation to be consistent.
"What I've learned in my year of doing political advertising is that the powers that be can reject an ad at any time for any reason without explanation," says Pariser. "It's one of the really thoroughly undemocratic parts of the media process."
There is a small upside, though. "I think MoveOn loves this," says Jones. "If they could get on the Super Bowl it would cost them God knows how much money. By having this kind of controversy, it doesn't cost them a dime and they get a lot of attention."