Strangling Public Debate
|New York-based Russ Baker is an award-winning
journalist who covers politics and
Presidential candidates typically talk about matters that
get them votes, which is not always the same as talking about
matters that matter. That's why authentic advocacy groups play a
crucial role in vitalizing campaigns by directing voters' (and
eventually candidates') attention to issues of fundamental concern.
And that is why any action that aims to silence the voices of these
advocacy groups constitutes a problem for us all.
The most dramatic recent example of what may be a growing trend
toward censorship was CBS's now-infamous refusal to air MoveOn's
SuperBowl "Child's Pay" ad—which accused the Bush administration of
politically popular tax cuts that today's children will be working
to pay for far into the future. After CBS claimed a blanket policy
against all "issue" ads, MoveOn learned that the company had
accepted an ad promoting Bush's industry-favoring Medicare
prescription drug law.
|What's good for ComCast's soul isn't
necessarily good for democracy.
In the end, the controversy itself garnered considerable
publicity for MoveOn and its point. That makes it the odd "success"
among untold other cases of speech-suppression and broadcaster bias.
An especially interesting case involves the Marijuana Policy
Project, a D.C.-based advocacy group engaged in a little-noticed
legal struggle that could have far-ranging implications. The group
wants presidential candidates to firm up their positions on the
medically-accepted value of marijuana in treating certain serious
illnesses (cultivation and possession is currently allowed in eight
states with physician's approval but totally forbidden by federal
statute.) MPP planned to place about $10,000 worth of issue ads in
New Hampshire in anticipation of that state's primary. But when
their local rep contacted ComCast—America's largest cable
company—for a rate card, they were told that the corporate legal
department would not make one available to the organization. This
was based not on the ad content—the company hadn't even seen that
yet—only on the name of the sponsoring organization.
Perhaps it was merely principle that led ComCast to recently
decide to donate a stunning $50 million worth of public service
announcements demonizing marijuana—the kind of announcements best
described as scare ads—while refusing an ad calling for
compassionate exceptions to the nation's drug laws for medically
approved treatments. But there's no question that the political
grass is greener on the "Just Say No" side: the White House drug
czar alone plans to spend $145 million over three years on ads
warning of marijuana dangers.
What's good for ComCast's soul (and political connections) isn't
necessarily good for democracy. Almost by definition, the boldest
stands involve verboten topics. If ComCast's example of choosing
which side of a controversial issue to freeze out of its advertising
lineup becomes the norm, political debate in this country would be
restricted dramatically, and original thinking and boldness on the
campaign trail further discouraged.
ComCast, with 21 million subscribers in 35 states, was clearly
seeking to avoid becoming a story itself when it declined to put its
decision into writing for MPP. Apparently, though, the cable giant
doesn't have to justify itself. Legally, any private company can
turn down any ad it doesn't like. I asked the ACLU about this, and
its spokesperson concurred. There's only one thing that these
broadcasters and cable operators cannot turn down: ads for
candidates in national elections.
And here's where the pro-free speech forces can make an
innovative, slightly subversive countermove. A congressional
candidate in New Hampshire, Libertarian Dan Belforti, offered to
address the medical marijuana issue in his own upcoming TV adsif he
can verify that such action won't violate the extraordinarily
complex campaign finance laws. Because TV providers can't
straight-arm advertising monies from federal candidates, it looks
like ComCast may have to let its subscribers hear from the other
side of this important debate.
|There's no question that the political and
financial grass is greener on the "Just Say No"
In a round of phone calls to both campaign finance reform groups
and free speech groups—admirable causes with differing interests—it
became clear that this particular problem has not been high on their
priority lists, nor even clearly understood. They better get up to
speed pronto. Many "issue" ads are sponsored by cut-outs for
corporate interests, yet that doesn't seem to trouble television
operators. In Iowa, according to The Washington Post,
cablecasters were happy to run a negative ad from a DC-based
pro-corporate group, the Club for Growth, which labeled Dean (and
Democrats generally) a "tax-hiking, government-expanding,
latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading,
body-piercing, Hollywood-loving left-wing freak show."
The in-fighting over issue advertising is getting rougher. In
December, the House quietly approved a provision within the omnibus
federal spending bill which would take away federal grants from
local and state transportation authorities that permit citizens to
run advertising on buses, trains or subways in support of reforming
our nation's drug laws. "If enacted, the provision could effectively
silence community groups around the country that are using
advertising to educate Americans about medical marijuana and other
drug policy reforms," the ACLU's Emily Whitfield emailed me.
Of course, if governmental entities refuse to run such ads, then
the privately-owned cable and television stations will become even
more crucial in determining the scope of public debate.
Hence, ComCast's decision matters. "The point is that they're the
largest cable provider in the country," says Neal Levine, MPP's
director of state policies. "In some states they're the only game in
town." Indeed, the company, an acquisitions master, may be about to
become even more powerful, as it seeks to swallow Disney (and its
|Legally, any private company can turn down any
ad it doesn't like.
With the noose closing around the more courageous throats, the
moves by MPP and Mr. Belforti gain heightened significance. Might we
soon see all manner of people running for political office solely to
facilitate debate over sensitive matters? Presumably, limits on both
the size of hard money contributions and on soft-money-supported ads
close to election day—intended to block special interests from
exerting undue influence—could not prevent individuals who support
an issue from raising money for a candidate willing to address it.
No telling where this could lead. With so many odious and
self-serving interests abusing pass-throughs to influence voters,
maybe this development is the unanticipated flip side—more, not less
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Published: Feb 13 2004