Wednesday, December 15, 2004

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.


Anonymous said...

Nice job, DK. Reasoned analysis. We don't always see eye to eye but I think you nailed it on this one..

Anonymous said...

First of all: There is no First Amendment in broadcast television or radio. NBC and CBS are licensed to operate in the public interest. Is it in the public interest to open the airwaves to any form of religious attack ?(and before you say, "Its not an attack... Or... Its an attack on bigotry...Etc." ask yourself if the Church - unmistakebale in the background, with the cross - were a Temple or Synagogue, would it be an attack?). CBS and NBC should have just argued that this was a public interest issue, and I doubt they would have received much trouble. And before you argue that the message was benign, or inclusive, or whatever, ask yourself the most basic Public Interest question: would airing a commercial with the exact opposite of what I believe be in the Public Interest? If the answer is "yes," you are fine. If you disagree, you are a hypocrite. I think this is a case of the networks acting responsible, in the interest of the public.

Anonymous said...

Dan: Nothing on Scharzenegger rolling back workers' lunch rights? NPR picked it up, and I think it's important for the Left to talk about about what the neocons are really up to, so that we can start destroying the myth that the Republicans are the party of the common man.

This is from the San Francisco Chronicle:

Anonymous said...

No First Amendment for the TV Networks? So, Congress could pass a law restricting the content of their news broadcasts?

Anonymous said...

"So, Congress could pass a law restricting the content of their news broadcasts?"

Um, haven't they already? Doesn't the Patriot Act greatly limit U.S. news outlets' ability to report on anything related to the war?

Anonymous said...

If the Patriot Act does indeed restrict the content of news broadcasts (I'm not conceding the point) then there will be a court challenge to it at some point, if that part of the act doesn't expire with the rest of it.

Anonymous said...

On the idea of whether Congress can pass a law: Congress has passed laws: the 1934 Communications Act, and the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Both affirm the right of the FCC to only license broadcasters "in the public interest, convenience, or necessity." This ambiguous phrasing allows the FCC to do, essentially, anything it wants to "protect the airwaves." Like fine Howard Stern, Viacom, etc. Yet both laws have explicit anti-censorship clauses. How does the contradiction get resolved? By the Supreme Court. In 1943's NBC v. FCC, the Supreme Court ruled that the FCC's power in no way contradicts the First Amendment. Ever since, we've had "regulation by raised eyebrow" in the words of one scholar. Remember Newton Minow's "Vast Wasteland"? Or FCC Chairman Mark Fowler's idea that "a TV is a toaster with pictures"? All these FCC Chairmen had to do was make speeches, and the broadcasters knew exactly what they meant. With this kind of power you don't need such obvious control devices as explicit laws concerning content. although the FCC has these; see these rules concerning obscenity on the airwaves.) The stuff about the Patriot Act restricting speech on the airwaves is foolish garbage. What restricts speech on the airwaves is the capitalistic basis of our media system, and the close relationship between Michael Powell and George Bush. No broadcaster with visions of expansion would dare cross these two....

Anonymous said...

I'll concede the last posters point about "regulation by raised eyebrows." I didn't think the Patriot Act really had anything to do with it.

Anonymous said...

Hey Dan, you need to step outside of your media bubble into the real world.

Christian denominations practice all kinds of discrimination and exclusion, from Bob Jones University's ban on inter-racial dating (race-mixing is Satan's way of establishing a New World Order), to the Catholic Church's ban on female clergy, to Pat Robertson's denunciation of Methodists and Episcopalians as "the Antichrist."

Ever entered a Latter Day Saint's Temple? Of course not --only Mormon's are permitted inside.

Are you a Catholic who is pro-choice or who uses the pill? Church authorities say it is a sin for you to take communion or to vote for a pro-choice politician.

Are you a Southern Baptist? Thank your church for getting around to apologizing for slavery --in 1995.

I volunteered for years in the 1990's at St. Rose Church in Chelsea, a city with a burgeoning Hispanic population. Every Sunday, they would conduct English-language Mass for about 15 white, elderly worshippers in the main part of the Church. At the same time, they would pack 60-100 Hispanics into a makeshift area for Spanish service in the basement. Despite pleas from eager Spanish speaking Catholics, the Church refused to offer a Spanish Mass in the main church.

The UCC ad doesn't pretend to portray actual events (no, Dan, even Churches that consider gays evil don't post bouncers in black at the door to keep them out). The ad simply dramatizes the exclusionary worldview of many Christian churches and contrasts them with the UCC's inclusive practice of Christ's teaching.

Susan Ryan-Vollmar said...

Hi Dan,

An excellent post. As usual, you've laid out an extremely reasoned analysis. But two points: 1) CBS's explanation of why it refused to run the ad shows that the gay issue is what the network found problematic. I doubt any network executive involved in the decision not to run the ad from either CBS or NBC got as far in their reasoning as you did in this post. 2) I agree with much of what the last poster (unfortunately, the post was anonymous, otherwise I would cite his or her name) said about various religions' inclusivity or lack thereof when it comes to race.