Pushing Back Against Ad Censorship

Television networks refuse progressive ads more often than conservative ones

Paul Waldman and Matthew Biedlingmaier

A few months ago, MoveOn PAC decided to air a series of innovative ads against a group of vulnerable Republican members of Congress, tied to the various corruption scandals enveloping GOP-controlled Washington. They developed a striking image to serve as the ads’ centerpiece: the Caught Red-Handed” series features photos of a member of Congress in black-and-white, except for his or her hands, which are colored bright red. The visual, accompanied by a voiceover listing allegations, is memorable, and communicates the ad’s central claim, making it highly unusual in a world of cookie-cutter, instantly forgettable campaign ads.

If this were an isolated incident, it would be hard to conclude that there's a systematic effort at work to keep progressive voices off the airwaves. But, in fact, we've seen this script play out multiple times in recent years.

The only problem came when MoveOn PAC went to buy time for their ads. As Joel Bleifuss recently reported in In These Times, though the PAC has spent an estimated $1.3 million on the campaign, television stations in many key areas refused to air the ads, or pulled them after the member of Congress complained. So far, six television stations have refused the ads, including stations in South Bend, Indiana (where the ad targeted Rep. Chris Chocola), Hartford, Connecticut (Rep. Nancy Johnson), and Columbus, Ohio (Rep. Deborah Pryce). In Virginia (Rep. Thelma Drake), Cox Communications stopped running the advertisements on the basis of business risks.”

If this were an isolated incident, it would be hard to conclude that there’s a systematic effort at work to keep progressive voices off the airwaves. But, in fact, we’ve seen this script play out multiple times in recent years. In contrast, we were able to find only one recent case of a conservative group experiencing a similar problem – that of a Club for Growth ad this August targeting moderates during a Republican primary. 

Maybe it’s that all of the conservative ads on the air are fair, factual, and family-friendly, while the ads from progressive groups are libelous and laced with obscenity? Clearly not. Consider the following:

  • On January 10, the Campaign for America’s Future and the Public Campaign Action Fund released an ad entitled, Resign,” targeting former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas). The advertisement highlighted DeLay’s indictment for money laundering and his campaign contributions from disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, as well as his penchant for expensive travel and recreation. Near the end of the ad, the announcer stated, one million dollars from Russian tycoons to allegedly influence his vote.” When DeLay’s lawyer wrote a letter saying this latter claim – taken almost verbatim from a Washington Post article on one of the shadier sub-plots in the DeLay corruption story – was reckless, malicious and false,” three Houston television stations removed the ad and one refused it entirely. After the decision to pull the ads garnered considerable press attention, all three stations agreed to air a revised version of the ad. 
In the summer of 2005, a television station in Salt Lake City, Utah (KTVX-TV) refused to run an advertisement sponsored by Gold Star Families for Peace, an organization co-founded by anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan. The advertisement was released two days before the president was scheduled to speak to the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Salt Lake City. In the ad, Sheehan pleads for a meeting with the President and accuses him of lying to the American people about the war in Iraq. She states, I love my country. But how many more of our loved ones need to die in this senseless war? It’s time to admit mistakes and bring our troops home now.” KTVX claimed that the ad did not qualify as an issue advertisement,” and that “[the viewpoints it] reflected [were] not compatible with our marketplace and would not be received well by our viewers.” In December 2004, the United Church of Christ sought to buy time for an ad that featured parishioners filing into a church past two bouncers, who block the entrance once two men who appear to be a couple arrive. The ad features text that reads in part, Jesus didn’t turn people away, neither do we.” NBC refused to air the ad because they claimed it violated our longstanding policy of not accepting ads that deal with issues of public controversy.” CBS also refused, saying, Because this commercial touches on the exclusion of gay couples and other minority groups by other individuals and organizations, 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.” ABC allowed the ad to be aired on its ABC Family cable network, but not on ABC itself – although soon after, it did air an ad promoting James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, perhaps America’s foremost organization opposing gay rights. A little over a month before the 2004 election, Sony attempted to place ads for the DVD release of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. All three major networks told Sony they would run the ads during entertainment programming, but refused to air the ads during their 6:30 news programs. In January 2004, CBS refused to sell ad time during the Super Bowl to MoveOn, which wanted to air an ad criticizing President Bush for running up budget deficits, and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which wanted to air an ad discouraging meat-eating. The network simply does not accept any advocacy advertising of any kind,” a CBS vice-president said at the time. Yet the Super Bowl did feature an anti-drug ad paid for by the Bush administration. The next month, CBS aired an administration ad touting the Medicare prescription drug benefit, pulling it only when the General Accounting Office began an investigation to determine whether the ad constituted an illegal expenditure of taxpayer dollars on propaganda.

Unfortunately for these groups, there is little legal recourse when a station decides to reject their ads. Federal law mandates that once a television station sells advertising time to any legally qualified candidate for public office, it must sell time to all candidates for that office without regard to the content of their ad. But there is no such requirement for entities other than candidates. Stations are perfectly free to refuse to air an ad by a nonprofit or political group if they don’t like what it says.

So, is there a conservative conspiracy at work? That might be taking things a bit far, although as Bleifuss reported, sympathetic television executives may have helped Congresswoman Pryce get the Caught Red-Handed” ad directed against her off the air. One of the stations in question, WBNS, is owned by the Dispatch Media Group. Dispatch’s CEO, John Wolfe, and his wife Ann have given tens of thousands of dollars to Republican causes in recent years – including a $2,100 donation from Ann to Pryce’s campaign. And all the stations that pulled the ads about Pryce were happy to run ads by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, many of which contained documented falsehoods about John Kerry. 

What we can say for sure is that liberal groups seem to get their ads pulled from or refused by both networks and local television stations with regularity, while conservatives don’t seem to face the same problem. Part of the disparity could simply be that conservatives are much quicker to lodge complaints. The threat of a lawsuit seems to have a particularly powerful effect on skittish station owners.

It’s worth noting that in the 2004 presidential race, the advertisements that had the greatest effect were not aired by either campaign. It was those by independent 527” groups – particularly the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and Progress For America, a Republican group that spent over $35 million in support of President Bush – that truly determined the shape of the race. Whoever the two parties pick as their nominees in 2008, we can be sure there will be a whole raft of 527 groups on both sides lining up to blanket the airwaves with praise and accusations. Some of the claims they make will no doubt be false, even slanderous, as the Swift Boat ads were.

Still, there is hope for progressives wondering how to handle the issue in the future. In the weeks before the 2004 Presidential election, the Sinclair Broadcasting Group, a media company known for pushing conservative causes through its television stations, announced plans to disrupt regularly scheduled programming on all of its 62 stations. They planned to air an anti-Kerry documentary, titled, Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal. Immediately, multiple Web sites sprung up urging people to contact Sinclair stations and boycott their advertisers. Others (including our organization, Media Matters for America) posted articles documenting the falsehoods in the film, and calling for concerned citizens to contact stations directly and take immediate action. 

The rapid response worked: a number of companies pulled their ads from stations owned by Sinclair, and several stations refused to air the documentary entirely. Sinclair even suffered financially; their stock dropped over 10 percent by the end of the week following the announcement, which amounted to over $60 million in losses. Even in this case, with a highly ideological station owner, they ultimately succumbed to public pressure and bad publicity.

The case involving DeLay is similar in that both sides succeeded in getting the television stations to buckle under pressure, at least for a little while. When DeLay’s attorneys threatened the station with a lawsuit, they quickly pulled the ad off the air. But the two progressive groups that sponsored the ad succeeded in getting a minimally altered version back on because they raised enough of a public stink that the stations responded. 

Of course, in the process they got even more publicity for their ads, which may be the most important lesson. When stations balk at ads by progressives, or when slanderous right-wing ads air uncontested, progressives shouldn’t just slink away. Having an impact may mean not just coming up with a great idea for an ad in the first place, but preparing lawyers and mobilizing public pressure on television stations as well.

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Matthew Biedlingmaier is an intern at Media Matters for America. Paul Waldman is a Senior Fellow at Media Matters and author of Being Right Is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success.
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