Group Charges Media Consolidation Facilitated Censorship

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WASHINGTON (AdAge.com) -- The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission today said he saw no reason for the FCC to become involved in a controversy over cable
Some of the faces from the commercial that was banned by Comcast.
network Comcast's refusal to air an anti-war commercial during CNN's coverage of President Bush's State of the Union speech.

The group that made the commercial charged that the cable giant's refusal to run a political opinion commercial was an act of censorship made possible by media consolidation.

Doesn't matter?
FCC Chairman Michael Powell said, "Issues like that have been around in the commission and in public policy since the beginning of time. That ad was about Washington, D.C. The fact that Comcast might own assets in another part of the country to which the ad wasn't even placed" doesn't matter.

The ad was produced by Princeton, N.J-based Anti War Video Fund, which is associated with the National Peace Action Education Fund. The anti-war group is accusing Comcast, now the nation's No. 1 owner of cable companies, of censorship, and both it and a Washington consumer group are warning that the refusal demonstrates the problems of media consolidation.

Comcast has denied the allegation.

$5,000 placement
The controversy stems from a $5,000 ad buy the New Jersey group placed last week for an ad featuring a multicultural, multigenerational cross-section of New Jersey residents calmly expressing their concerns about the impending war on Iraq. The spot ended with a picture of the collection of faces morphing into an American flag.

The spot was scheduled to run twice a day during prime time this week on Washington, D.C., cable airings of CNN, including the Tuesday night's CNN coverage of the State of the Union address.

(The 30-second ad, produced by Telequist, Princeton, can be seen in Media Player and QuickTime format at http://www.awvf.com/press.html.)

Brian Sloman, CEO of Spectrum Marketing, Media, Pa., said he bought the time to air the spots last week. He said he was told the spots needed clearance, but after he received a schedule for their airing, he said he assumed that meant they cleared. He said that on Tuesday morning Comcast called, saying the charges the ad makes -- that the war was a violation of international law and was being conducted by "mercenaries" -- were unsubstantiated and that the spots wouldn't run. Mr. Sloman said the last-minute decision left the group unable to air the spots.

Comcast said it has run advertising from other anti-war groups, including one spot featuring actors Gregory Peck and Susan Sarrandon.

"Comcast runs advertisements from many sources representing a wide range of viewpoints, pro and con, on numerous issues of importance to the public," the company said in a statement. "However, we must decline to run any spot that fails to substantiate certain claims or allegations. In our view, this spot raises such questions."

Free-speech violation
Scott Lynch, communications director for Peace Action, which sponsors the foundation, called Comcast's action "ridiculous" and a violation of the group's free-speech rights.

"This is a sign of what could go wrong in the future with media conglomeration if people are saying something even vaguely controversial," he said. "People are voicing their opinion here."

Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, also decried the decision, noting that with the recent acquisition of AT&T cable, Comcast now has 70% of subscribers in the top 20 markets.

Merger approval
"Comcast claims that its reason for rejecting the ad was because it could not 'substantiate' the information," he said in a statement. "But Comcast is likely also engaged in currying favor with the Bush Administration, which approved its merger without any reservations or safeguards. Comcast and other cable giants are now also seeking political support to head off congressional proposals that would rein in skyrocketing monthly subscriber fees."

Mr. Sloman said he is talking to the group about running the ad elsewhere.

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