Censored at the Super Bowl

Kickoff isn't until Sunday, but across the broad expanses of the Internet, the Super Bowl is already a hotly contested game. It's not the Patriots-Panthers matchup that's causing controversy. Instead, the great struggle of this year's Super Bowl is being waged over a short advertisement--a 30-second spot with few words, none of them spoken aloud. It's an ad underwritten by the grass-roots political organization Moveon.org criticizing the ballooning budget deficit under George W. Bush. Thanks to CBS, the network that refuses to air it during this year's Super Bowl broadcast, it is an ad that no one will see.

During the Super Bowl that is. Plenty of people have already watched the MoveOn ad, called "Child's Pay," on CNN, viewed it on the Internet, read about it in news stories and seen it excerpted on television news (If you're not one of them, you can watch the spot by clicking on the video player at the top of this page.) In fact, "Child's Pay" has gotten a tremendous amount of attention since CBS first declined to air it, citing a policy that prohibits "advocacy" ads. Fiery e-mails to the press from MoveOn supporters accuse CBS of currying favor with the Bush White House. Newspaper advertisements paid for by MoveOn characterize CBS's decision as a "tragedy of free speech." CBS's switchboards have been jammed for the past week with callers complaining about the network's refusal to air the ad. And MoveOn is urging its supporters to boycott the Super Bowl broadcast for a minute during halftime on Sunday.

"Child's Pay" is playing everywhere, all the time, often at no cost to its creators. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on political advertising, tells NEWSWEEK that MoveOn's spot may rank as "the ad that has achieved the most air time with the least dollars expended of any ad in the history of the republic."

The controversy over the ad raises questions about broadcasters' civic obligations, censorship and the blurry line between political and commercial advertising. But the furor surrounding "Child's Pay" also provides a window on the emerging PR savvy of activists on the Internet. The MoveOn saga shows how in the current polarized political climate, getting censored can be the best publicity there is.

The advertisement's story, like everything else, begins on the Internet. MoveOn, which is dedicated to getting Big Money out of politics, Big Business out of the media and the Bushes out of the White House, last fall ran a nationwide contest for the best 30-second advertisement criticizing the Bush administration's policies. The contest, entitled "Bush in 30 Seconds," scored headlines before it was even over when Republicans complained that two of the competing ads featured on MoveOn's Web site made an inappropriate comparison between Adolph Hitler and George W. Bush. MoveOn distanced itself from the Hitler ads but the attention paid to the incident made one thing clear: MoveOn wasn't afraid to ruffle some feathers to get its message across.

For its winner, MoveOn's panel of judges chose "Child's Pay," an ad with an understated tone and a direct message. The spot depicts an array of angel-faced children performing grueling adult tasks--working in factories, vacuuming floors, hauling trash. Its only words are written in white across a black screen toward the end: "Guess who's going to pay off President Bush's $1 trillion deficit?"

With the winner in place, MoveOn focused its energy on securing a high-profile venue for the ad. It waged a fierce Internet fund-raising campaign to meet the Super Bowl's astronomical advertising costs and managed to raise $1.5 million, enough to pay for a 30-second spot. All the organization needed was a greenlight from CBS. MoveOn says that at first, the signals seemed good. Eli Pariser, MoveOn's campaign director, tells NEWSWEEK he had initial conversations with CBS advertising salespeople who "talked with us about how much they'd love to run this ad." (A CBS spokesman denies this account). Pariser says MoveOn thought it was sailing smooth toward Super Bowl Sunday. "We had no reason to expect for them to reject it."

But after MoveOn submitted the ad for CBS's consideration, the network faxed MoveOn a rejection letter calling "Child's Pay" an advocacy advertisement that didn't meet the network's standards for broadcast. MoveOn officials were outraged. The network, they felt, was stifling their message, denying them their right to "free speech."

CBS says it was well within its rights to turn down the ad. In a statement, the network said it based its MoveOn decision on a "decades-old" policy of preventing "those with means to produce and purchase network advertising from having undue influence on 'controversial issues of public importance'." "Child's Pay," in other words, attacked the Bush administration without giving the Bush administration an equal chance to respond. The problem with this argument, MoveOn and others say, is that CBS and other networks run this kind of politically charged advertising all the time under other guises. "What you run into," says Jamieson, "is the pharmaceutical-manufacturers association in essence telling you how wonderful the pharmaceutical companies are and how good it would be to have a [government-sponsored] drug benefit that had these characteristics, but it never mentions a candidate and the networks don't recognize that that's actually issue advocacy."

The battle over "Child's Pay" is now one of public perception. And by most, accounts, it is a battle that MoveOn is winning. Condemnations of CBS have appeared everywhere from The New York Times op-ed page to Capitol Hill. In a letter to CBS president and CEO Leslie Moonves, more than 20 members of Congress accused CBS of limiting "the debate to ads that are not critical of the political status quo, and ... of the President and the Republican-controlled Congress." Vermont Rep. Bernard Sanders, a coauthor, tells NEWSWEEK that "Child's Pay's" rejection symbolizes the dangerous implications of corporate-controlled media. "There is virtually nobody nationally who has a different point of view, who has a progressive point of view, and I don't think that's an accident, frankly. I think that's what the people who own the media want and what the people who do the advertising want."

Buffered by these deafening cries of discontent, the MoveOn ad has generated more buzz as a censored commodity than it ever would have as a Super Bowl ad. Some, most notably CBS, say this is what MoveOn.org wanted all along--for the network to punt on running the Super Bowl ad and thus deliver MoveOn tons of great publicity, free of charge. Pariser denies this was his intent. "Frankly, if I had the choice between running the ad and demonstrating how a grass-roots competition can create an ad that makes it to the Super Bowl or getting this attention on the issue, I'd rather just run the ad," he says.

Sanders thinks MoveOn is smart to make a fuss. "If I were the head of MoveOn.org and CBS rejected me, man, I would tell as many people as I could about it. And I suspect that's what they're doing." As a side benefit, the budget deficit is even getting some attention. It's not the center of attention, though. That would be Moveon.org.

Censored at the Super Bowl | News