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Strangling Public Debate
February 13
, 2004

New York-based Russ Baker is an award-winning journalist who covers politics and media.

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" side.

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 ABC Television.)
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 democracy.

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Published: Feb 13 2004


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