When upwards of a billion people worldwide tune into CBS for the Superbowl this weekend, the network that brought you Big Brother will further blur the boundaries between literature, bad TV and dismal political reality. That’s right football fans, watch what you say and do, because Big Brother, er, Les Moonves, will be watching.
Last week, an iron fist fell swiftly on the insurgents at MoveOn.org, the nation’s largest online grassroots advocacy group. And although it’s unlikely that MoveOn co-founders Wes Boyd and Joan Blades will be dragged to the Ministry of Love and tortured for their indiscretions, CBS has seen to it that the two stinking hippies won’t be badmouthing President Bush during CBS’ broadcast of the Superbowl, either.
MoveOn’s latest stab at the “Misleader,” as they refer to Bush, was a nationwide ad contest seeking the best 30-second denunciation of the president. Despite angry censure from Texas congressman Tom DeLay, who laid into MoveOn for accepting two submissions (out of more than 1,000) that compared Bush to Hitler, the winning ad is far from belligerent. Salon.com’s Michelle Goldberg called it “A simple, poetic indictment.”
“Child’s Pay” by Denver’s Charlie Fisher, depicts children manning blue collar jobs like washing dishes, working assembly lines, vacuuming hotel rooms, ringing groceries and driving garbage trucks. The silent commercial closes with the tagline “Guess who’s going to pay off President Bush’s $1 trillion deficit?”
The MoveOn Voter Fund, MoveOn’s political action committee, received such a positive response to “Child’s Pay” that it decided to run the ad during the Superbowl, in addition to using it to tar the Bushies in key swing states like Michigan, Ohio and Florida during the Democratic primaries. Since requesting donations to pay for Superbowl airtime for the commercial a few weeks ago, the MoveOn Voter Fund has raised 90 percent of its $10 million goal.
But when MoveOn submitted “Child’s Pay” to CBS, cash in hand, it was summarily rejected.
In a January 19 interview with the New York Times, CBS Execute Vice President Martin D. Franks defended the decision, attributing it to a decades-old, company-wide policy of Viacom (Viacom owns, among other networks, CBS, MTV and Comedy Central). Viacom networks do not run advertisements that stake out a position on “matters of public debate where there are discernible sides, and we don’t want those who have deep pockets to have an undue influence on the debate. Pick an issue, NAFTA, gun control, abortion.” Asked about past ads that have run on CBS that advocate anti-drug and anti-smoking positions, Franks said that CBS does air public service announcements, but not ads that stake out ground in public debates. “Is it an absolutely perfect system? Absolutely not,” Franks told the Times. “On the other hand, the MoveOn.org ad wasn’t even close. I didn’t need to rewind that one in the VCR.”
Franks and Viacom might not be the benevolent guardians of the airwaves that they appear to be, though. According to a June 2003 report by Public Citizen’s Aaron Craig, Viacom has close ties to the Republican National Committee’s new chairman, Ed Gillespie. Prior to joining the RNC, Gillespie exploited his close relationship with White House insiders to make a killing with his lobbying firm, Quinn, Gillespie & Associates. Gillespie’s clients paid him to persuade the White House to take up their various corporate agendas. Between 2000 and 2002, Viacom was one of Gillespie’s largest clients, paying the lobbying firm $720,000. Last June, Viacom and Gillespie got what they paid for, as the FCC loosened its rules on the concentration of media ownership in a given market.
Earlier this winter, CBS and its parent company Viacom appeared to pay Gillespie and the RNC back for the favorable FCC decision they helped buy. When Gillespie objected loudly to a controversial CBS miniseries on Ronald Reagan, the network caved to the RNC’s pressure and pulled the series off the air. CBS’ Martin Franks did not return the Dig‘s phone calls to his New York and Washington offices seeking clarification of Viacom’s relationship with Gillespie and the RNC.
Various advocacy groups are crying hypocrite for the dissonance in CBS’ treatment of MoveOn and the White House. For the past two years, CBS aired White House ads that linked casual drug use to terrorism; the firm that produced those ads, Ogilvy & Mather, also produced this year’s White House anti-drug ad, and it is expected to convey a similar message. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) vehemently objects to CBS’ contention that criticism of budget deficits is controversial, while linking dime bags to al-Qaeda is not. “If your network is to be consistent,” reads a petition on NORML’s Web site, “then you must also adhere to this policy when it comes to anti-marijuana propaganda ads. Clearly [decriminalization] is a ‘controversial issue of public importance’ that divides American public opinion, and any public service announcement on the subject that promotes only one side of the issue must be considered an issue ad.”
After initial reluctance to charge CBS with partisanship, MoveOn struck CBS hard last Friday, issuing two combative press releases. “CBS [is] guilty of political favoritism…Network [airs] White House anti-drug ad as it lobbies for favors from Bush White House,” asserted MoveOn’s PR firm, Fenton Communications.
“It seems to us that CBS simply defers to those it fears or from whom it wants favors – in this case, the Bush White House,” Eli Pariser, MoveOn’s campaign director, declared.