Debate over freedom of speech hits CBS where it counts

Though the main event at the Super Bowl is football, the biggest draws for many fans are the creative advertising and halftime show. This year some scheduled ads were pulled weeks before kickoff, and the now-infamous breast-baring fiasco has put CBS in hot water with the viewing public and the Federal Communications Commission. As the dust settles, many people are asking questions: Who decides what goes on TV? And who decides what is too much?

Two political ads were pulled several weeks before the Super Bowl: one sponsored by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), and one sponsored by MoveOn, a California-based public-interest organization that is, according to their Web site, “working to bring ordinary people back into politics.” They claim over 170,000 online activists nationwide.

MoveOn’s ad was the overall winner and People’s Choice winner of the “Bush in 30 Seconds” political advertising contest the Web site sponsored. The competition was advertised as a nationwide search to find the best spot to tell the truth about the Bush administration’s policy failures.

The winning ad was entitled “Child’s Pay” and depicts children working in service and manufacturing jobs. It ends with the line “Guess who’s going to pay off President Bush’s $1 trillion deficit?” flashing across the screen. A video clip of the ad is available on the MoveOn Web site,

Advertisements were judged by a celebrity panel including Jack Black, Margaret Cho, Janeane Garofalo, Gus Van Sant and Eddie Vedder. In addition, thousands of voters logged on to the MoveOn Web site during the month of December to cast their votes for the People’s Choice Award.

“Child’s Pay” aired on several networks during the week of January 17-21, coinciding with the President’s State of the Union address January 20. It was slated to run during the Super Bowl on February 1, but at the last minute CBS removed it from the slate of ads, saying it was “too controversial.”

The MoveOn Web site questions the motivation behind yanking the ad: “Is it because of the massive favor CBS just got from the Bush Administration – a law which allows it to grow much bigger? Or is it just because CBS, which overwhelmingly favored President Bush in its political giving, doesn’t want to air an ad that questions his policies?”

MoveOn adds that while CBS deemed their ad too much for prime time, the network ran numerous other ads during the Super Bowl for tobacco, beer, sexual-enhancement drugs and other items that certainly could be labeled controversial, let alone the mid-game spectacle. “What’s ‘controversial?'” the Web site asks. “CBS claims that it has a policy against running ‘controversial’ issue ads. But the only line in the whole ad is a fact: President Bush has created a $1 trillion deficit. In fact, according to numbers released by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office yesterday, [January 26th] that number’s low.”

CBS aired an ad during the Super Bowl sponsored by the White House, and MoveOn claims that CBS overwhelmingly favors Republicans in their political giving. The network insisted their decisions were not based on politics, but Congress is right now on the verge of signing into law a deal that would allow television networks to merge and grow bigger. According to Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), the law is custom-tailored for CBS and Fox, which both lobbied for the bill.

MoveOn posted a plea to its supporters asking them to e-mail CBS in protest. According to the MoveOn Web site, CBS then received over 340,000 e-mails and phone calls related to the censorship of the ad.

But that’s not the only thing keeping CBS busy these days. The network is responding not only to claims they censored free speech rights but also blatantly violated broadcasting laws regarding nudity. Few people are not aware of Janet Jackson’s and Justin Timberlake’s chest-baring antics during the halftime show that earned CBS the scrutiny of the federal agency that oversees broadcasting rights – and responsibilities.

The FCC has issued several statements denouncing the performances. A recent press release by FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps hints of increased frustration with the apparent decline of moral values in the media: “One thing is clear – nothing this Commission has done so far has accomplished anything to slow down Big Media’s race to the bottom.”

As of February 6, the FCC had received over 200,000 complaints on the Super Bowl halftime show. The day after the Super Bowl, FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell issued a statement calling the halftime broadcast a “classless, crass, deplorable stunt” and ordered the FCC to begin an investigation into it. CBS faces thousands of dollars in possible fines for violating decency laws in broadcasting.

PSU graduate student Troy Parkinson thinks the whole blowup is ridiculous. “They ran the Grammys on a five-minute tape delay just in case something happened,” he says. “Our president is dropping bombs on little children in other countries, and you’re worried about a boob on TV? It wasn’t even a nice boob, either.”

Even CBS news correspondent Andy Rooney knocked the Super Bowl halftime show. “With all the filth on television and in the movies, I don’t know what the uproar was all about anyway,” he writes in a recent online article. “We all know what a breast looks like. They say children were watching, but there’s nothing most kids haven’t seen by the time they’re about 7.”

Rooney points out other instances during the broadcast that bothered him more than the halftime nudity. “One of the most offensive moments involved a horse’s rear end during a beer commercial. Did that really sell beer?” he questions. “Show business has no place at the Super Bowl. Football’s a good game because it’s real. We don’t even know for sure whether what we saw of Janet Jackson was really hers.”