Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Portraits in courage
Last year CBS celebrated its 75th anniversary. They took over a Sunday night's prime-time programming to run the usual self-congratulatory retrospective special. I didn't watch very much of it, but I did see a few minutes of the part dedicated to their news. I managed to hit the moment where they showed Walter Cronkite's famous report on the failure of our war in Viet Nam. That's a clip always worth watching. This was followed by a few minutes of the hosts going on about how brave CBS news is and some excellent 60 Minutes clips. At the time I found it humorous that CBS had the gall to call themselves brave less than three weeks after they cancelled the Ronald Reagan movie in the face of angry conservatives who had heard it might be insufficiently idolizing (of course, none of the critics had actually seen the movie). Maybe their humor writers wrote the host's script for the special.

This week, CBS continues to display that same level of bravery. The United Church of Christ tried to buy ad time for a new identity campaign highlighting the fact that they, like Jesus, "welcome all people, regardless of ability, age, race, economic circumstance or sexual orientation." On would think that that's a simple statement of fact and therefore shouldn't be too dangerous to say in public. One would be wrong.
According to a written explanation from CBS, the United Church of Christ is being denied network access because its ad implies acceptance of gay and lesbian couples -- among other minority constituencies -- and is, therefore, too "controversial."

"Because this commercial touches on the exclusion of gay couples and other minority groups by other individuals and organizations," reads an explanation from CBS, "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 on the [CBS and UPN] networks."


The debut 30-second commercial features two muscle-bound "bouncers" standing guard outside a symbolic, picturesque church and selecting which persons are permitted to attend Sunday services. Written text interrupts the scene, announcing, "Jesus didn't turn people away. Neither do we." A narrator then proclaims the United Church of Christ's commitment to Jesus' extravagant welcome: "No matter who you are, or where you are on life's journey, you are welcome here." (The ad can be viewed online at

NBC has also refused to air the ad. On the side of tolerance, or at least self-interested capitalism, are ABC Family, AMC, BET, Discovery, Fox, Hallmark, the History Channel, Nick@Nite, TBS, TNT, Travel, and TV Land, all of whom have agreed to sell time to the United Church of Christ.
"We find it disturbing that the networks in question seem to have no problem exploiting gay persons through mindless comedies or titillating dramas, but when it comes to a church's loving welcome of committed gay couples, that's where they draw the line," says the Rev. Robert Chase, director of the UCC's communication ministry.

CBS and NBC's refusal to air the ad "recalls the censorship of the 1950s and 1960s, when television station WLBT in Jackson, Miss., refused to show people of color on TV," says Ron Buford, coordinator for the United Church of Christ identity campaign. Buford, of African-American heritage, says, "In the 1960s, the issue was the mixing of the races. Today, the issue appears to be sexual orientation. In both cases, it's about exclusion."

Reread CBS's explanation, "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..." Since when has it been network policy to refuse paid ads by someone who might be perceived by some as being vaguely critical of proposed legislation? If the FDA (part of the executive branch) reopened hearings on the safety of Aspartame (a good idea, by the way) would CBS refuse all adds for products containing NutraSweet? Are they afraid Michael Powell will find a statement that a church practices tolerance to be obscene and an affront to community standards? Are they afraid that a right-wing consumer backlash will bring them to their knees like O'Reilly's boycott of France did?

This kind of cowardly self-censorship is more contemptible and more dangerous than formal censorship. In the old communist days, most of the countries in Eastern Europe did not have formal censorship laws on the books (contrary to the popular American stereotype). The Communist Parties depended on self-censorship to be more thorough and flexible than any written law. If a writer did not restrain himself from writing something controversial, his editor could be counted on to loose nerve and remove potentially offensive content. If the editor let something get by, the printer's union would refuse to print it. If anything even vaguely offensive to the powers that be somehow made it into print, the merchants could be counted on to refuse to sell it. At the bottom, the consumers could always be counted on to be too timid to buy controversial works or to denounce anyone who did. The result, without ever passing a a censorship law, was a completely tame, uninformative, and inoffensive media structure. Most people got their news and information from rumors.

Maybe CBS was joking when they touted their bravery last fall, but the joke has gotten old and it's not funny any more.

Update: Josh Marshall has a number of good posts on this (start here and work up). He's talked to a representative of CBS who explains their policy as: "CBS/UPN Network policy precludes accepting advertising that touches on and/or takes a position on one side of a current controversial issue of public importance." Apparently saying we let gays worship in our church "touches on and/or takes a position on one side of" the Heteros Only Marriage Amendment controversy. Let's keep in mind that the ad does not mention the amendment and the amendment doesn't directly mention homosexuals. But simply stating that your group doesn't discriminate is an intollerable act of advocacy to CBS. I'm going to stick with my call that this is a case of cowardly self-censorship. How 'bout you.

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