ON SECOND THOUGHT. I've been holding off from offering more than a brief comment about that celebrated United Church of Christ ad, mainly because I wasn't quite sure what I thought. Well, I've been thinking some more. And it seems pretty clear to me that though the UCC's heart is in the right place, its ad sends a decidedly mixed message.
First, take a few moments to watch it. Note what you see. Two black-shirted goons stand in front of a church, turning away people they deem unfit to enter. We start with two young men, presumably a gay couple. "No. Step aside please," says one of the goons. Fair enough; discrimination against lesbians and gay men is at the heart of the culture war, and the UCC is absolutely right to take on the fundies. You have to wonder how many hard-core red-staters even know that there are mainstream religious denominations that do not discriminate.
But the ad quickly deteriorates. A young man who appears to be Latino approaches. "No way, not you," he is told. A young woman - possibly a teenager - who's either black or Latino is told, "No." Someone else - it's hard to say who - is told, "I don't think so."
What is the message here? That there are religious denominations that don't allow admittance to Latinos and blacks? This is pretty outrageous, and we shouldn't let this slide simply because the UCC espouses liberal values.
The second half of the ad is fine. After the goons are done with their work, we see a slide that says, "Jesus didn't turn people away. Neither do we." After that, we see some happy families of various ethnicities and sexual orientations as the narrator says, "The United Church of Christ. No matter who you are or where you are on life's journey, you're welcome here."
What made the ad notorious, of course, was that it was rejected by CBS and NBC. In particular, CBS handed a gift to the UCC, issuing a bizarre statement that made it clear the network executives were more interested in toadying to the White House than in any sort of fair play. Said CBS:
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 on the [CBS and UPN] networks.
Why on earth would CBS say anything other than "the ad doesn't meet our standards"? More evidence that the wheels have completely come off the "Tiffany network."
The rejection has proved to be a publicity bonanza for the UCC, which is now trying to get the FCC to strip licenses from two Miami television stations, one owned by CBS, the other by NBC.
As a free-speech matter, this is an enormously complicated issue. Ordinarily, free-speech rights would reside with those to whom the ad is submitted. If the First Amendment means anything, it means that no one can be forced to propagate a message against his or her wishes, even if that message is accompanied by a check. Certainly no newspaper or magazine could be compelled to publish an ad it didn't want to accept.
But broadcasting has always been different, because of the theory that television and radio stations use scarce, publicly owned airwaves, and are thus bound by certain public-interest regulations. Add to that the fact that most broadcast outlets have fallen into the hands of a tiny number of corporate media giants, and it can be argued that CBS and NBC are too powerful to be allowed the last word on what advocacy ads they will or will not accept. My solution: break up the media monopolies, and extend the full protection of the First Amendment to radio and television.
If I were a network executive, I'd like to think I would accept the UCC ad. It's good to see religious liberals starting to fight back, even though I'm put off by the UCC's implication that the fundies discriminate against racial minorities - something that's clearly not true. But I would also have to think through the implications. If I run an ad that implies there are religious denominations that don't accept Latinos or blacks, what right would I then have to reject an ad portraying the UCC as a hotbed of Satan-worshippers? Or an ad that says Unitarian Universalists are all going to hell? (At least I'll see my friends!)
For that matter, consider the most defensible part of the UCC ad - the turning-away of a gay couple. Could this not open the door to some religious-right group demanding that the networks accept an ad denouncing gays and lesbians? If the UCC can try to get the FCC to force stations to carry its ad, why couldn't the Reverend James Dobson?
Maybe what we've got is the best possible outcome. The networks have asserted their First Amendment rights. And the UCC has gotten its message out far more effectively than if its ad had been quietly accepted.