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A great piece on the role of Advertisers in Media Censorship

Why Advertisers Should Take a Stand in Support of Media on Indecency and First Amendment Rights


During yesterday’s Howard Stern Show, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, an avowed Republican and supporter of President Bush, came on the air to voice support for Stern, reinforcing their friendship and forcefully questioning the federal government’s tactics in attacking Stern. I happen to agree with many of the concerns expressed by those who believe media has gone too far in its quest for the sensational. Since 1995 I have been a vocal advocate of V-Chip controls, standards for educational TV content, and the institution of laws against online pornography targeted to children and teens. In the early and mid-1990s, I was a vocal opponent of television talk programs that glorified aberrational elements of society.

But I agree that the FCC, federal government and others who are politicizing personal freedoms and first amendment rights have gone too far. Immediately following the Super Bowl, I expressed my support for and defense of CBS and MTV. Although I acknowledged how inappropriate the half-time show was, I expressed concern over a government that appeared all too willing to attack media and shut down basic first amendment rights.

Since then, President Bush has launched an offensive against same-sex marriages, a town in Alabama has threatened to outlaw homosexuality, the FCC has increased fines against broadcasters and on-air personalities to $500,000, and they have determined those fines should be imposed even if offenses are in context and spontaneous. Intelligent defenders of constitutional rights are questioning if an amendment forbidding same sex marriage is that distant from efforts to constitutionally diminish protections guaranteed by the First Amendment.

Broadcast networks and newspapers have always been the most vocal and ardent supporters of First Amendment rights. Today, however, broadcasters are so invested in protecting their regulatory advantages that they fear the FCC and Congress and bend over backwards to maintain their good will. Newspapers are foaming at the mouths over the Janet Jackson, Courtney Love and Stern affairs, devoting front pages day-after-day to foment public anger and encourage continued attacks on their competitive media. While a few columnists have weighed in against FCC actions, a majority of newspapers have excitedly joined the chorus protesting indecency on the airwaves without realizing or caring that they too could suffer the slings and arrows of a government run amuck.

Rather than debating the definition of indecency, let’s put these issues in context. Once the FCC and other governmental institutions force broadcasters to comply with new definitions of socially correct and acceptable behavior, they will move to “clean up” the rest of media. Not since the McCarthy era has creativity been so politicized. We can make a case that the “Master of My Domain” episode on “Seinfeld” might not be aired in the current environment. Numerous early episodes of “Will & Grace” and “Friends” would exceed the FCC’s new standards of decency, and “E.R.” and “NYPD Blue” have already been forced to cleanse content that would have aired unchallenged just a few weeks ago. It’s inevitable the government will next take on daytime soap operas if their current initiatives are allowed to continue unabated. Then it will be “The Soprano’s,” “Six Feet Under,” “Taxicab Confessions,” “Queer as Folk,” and innumerable programs that have yet to be created. If HBO were to come under attack, would the next “Sex and the City” even be considered?

Howard Stern may be offensive, but his programs are also funny and his talent is unquestioned. He has been a ratings leader for twenty years. I find a broad swath of extremely conservative and extremely liberal broadcasters to be far more offensive. Large groups of Americans agree. But should these broadcasters be fined, penalized, and stripped of their rights to voice opinions? Should distributors be fined and potentially bankrupt? If television and radio are being attacked today, can magazines be far behind? Already many retailers refuse to display numerous publications, and even traditional women’s magazines like Cosmopolitan have been forced to limit the exposure permitted on their covers.

As responsible and conscientious executives in the media, advertising and entertainment industries, we have a responsibility to protect our investments. The amount of advertiser dollars invested in building the media industry and the public good will toward media is in the trillions, even the quadrillions. The government is seeking to drive a stake into the relationships between media and consumers. Politics is shifting the focus of the public’s perception of media from a friendly source of news, information and entertainment to a perception of media as an enemy of morality, decency and justice. Is this an acceptable environment for advertisers? If advertisers fail to voice their support for broadcasters in the current environment and protest unjust attacks on the networks’ inherent sense of morality and decency, they become tacit allies of those who would destroy the media.

Advertisers are typically loath to weigh in on political issues, especially when they involve morality and decency. Marketers and agencies maintain a quiet and dispassionate perspective on public debates. But these issues impact on the ability of the media industry to maintain creative exploration and to serve the broad spectrum of Americans. The imposition of new national standards is fair and acceptable until they clearly infringe on basic inalienable American rights. Never before have we had so much technological ability to exclude unacceptable content from our homes. President Bush, Congress and the FCC have gone beyond acceptable limits to gain a political advantage in an election year. Eventually, this too shall pass, but in the interim dangerous precedents are being set.

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