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Last year, WLS-TV7, an ABC affiliate in Chicago, refused to broadcast a rather innocuous family planning commercial for Planned Parenthood -- despite the fact that the station had aired spots for the anti-abortion DeMoss Foundation. The pro-choice commercial featured a woman sitting on a couch with three children, talking quietly about the desirability of children being born into the loving homes of parents who are ready, willing and able to care for them. Despite some community protests, it never aired on TV7, but it got on several other stations without a hitch.

Then there was the recent flap between CNN and the Washington, D.C.-based Global Climate Information Project. CNN, famous among the national networks for its willingness to accept advocacy ads, ran the organization's anti-U.N. Global Warming Treaty commercial for the last three weeks of September. Then, according to the GCIP's Richard Pollock, CNN made a disturbing call to the Los Angeles ad agency that made the spot, Goddard Claussen. The message: the ads had been taken off the air because another environmental group had raised questions about them.

Ted's Big Adventure?

Partly based on what he heard through the grapvine, Pollock says he sensed the intervention of prominent 'green' advocate Ted Turner. CNN won't comment on whether Turner had a hand in the matter, and claims that the spot's challenger was a group called the Environmental Information Project. But the GCIP raised enough of a public protest -- even taking out an ad in The Wall Street Journal -- that the spot was put back on the air. CNN says it reinstated the commercial once the group made some changes to it; the group says it only provided further documentation for its claims.

CNN received kudos for its reconsideration in a Wall Street Journal editorial. The writer of that piece also pointed out that the Big Three networks would not accept advocacy ads of any kind. "Why not?" the Journal seemed to shout.

Why not, indeed? The Big Three -- Fox is another story -- are the only ones whose lines are clearly drawn on the matter. They don't take issue ads, period. That policy does not apply to local affiliates around the country, which can make their own decisions, as WLS did with Planned Parenthood.

News You Can't Use

According to an ABC spokesperson: "We do not accept advocacy ads because we believe that it is subject matter best handled by our news division, which can provide a balanced look at the topic, rather than by those companies that can afford to spend money advertising their points of view." The statement echoes the policies of NBC and CBS. (Political candidates, although they may be embracing issues when they're not trashing their opponents, fall into the "product" category, just like soap and candy bars, and their spots are accepted by the networks.)

Networks are under no legal obligation to run advocacy spots. "There's a set of interesting arguments as to why perhaps they shouldn't have the right to select their advertising, but no such regulation would withstand First Amendment scrutiny," notes Marin Scordato, professor of law and media at Southwestern University School of Law, Los Angeles. "On the whole, both print and broadcast media are free to choose which advertisers to do business with and what ads of those advertisers to run. They can decide they don't like the product or the visuals of the ads. They can do it for all types of subtle reasons, and certainly for not liking the point of view."

Adds Jonathan Mallamud, professor of constitutional law at Camden, N.J.'s Rutgers School of Law, "In this country, we have a variety of people who own media outlets -- so we have enough diversity that it's heartening to hear that some people can get their ads on." The real issue, believes Mallamud, is "that we don't want the government telling private media what they can or cannot broadcast. Even if it turns out that they make unfair decisions, it's better to tolerate that than have the government control what the mass media cover."

If stations have the right to reject all advocacy ads, why do some choose to run these spots and risk alienating viewers and 'legitimate' product advertisers alike? Revenue, for starters. "I'm surprised more people don't take advocacy ads, but I'm delighted we're here to take the money," says Paul Rittenberg, VP-advertising at Fox News, which will accept ads from activists on both sides of an issue as long as the work withstands legal scrutiny. Rittenberg claims Fox has yet to turn any spots down. "It's partly money, and partly, 'Why not?' If people have the money and a legitimate point of view they want to pursue through advertising, who are we to say they can't do that?" Yet even Fox draws the line somewhere. "We wouldn't run an ad for the Ku Klux Klan," Rittenberg confesses. "We wouldn't run anything incendiary."

"It's a judgment call," believes Paul Atkinson, VP-advertising at The Wall Street Journal. The Journal, like many newspapers, accepts advocacy ads as long as they meet certain standards. "The bigger and more legitimate the group, the more tasteful their advertising," Atkinson observes of issue ads. "Occasionally one has to turn down ads that are offensive, not because of the intent of the message but because of the tone with which the message is expressed. The Wall Street Journal has its standards, and other publications have theirs. You go where they match up. If you want to sit in a jacket-and-tie restaurant, you have to wear a jacket and tie."

Scared Off The Air

Sometimes it may not matter what you wear if you're up against well-financed opponents with clout. Pacy Markman, co-founder of Zimmerman & Markman in Los Angeles, an ad agency that specializes in issue advertising, recalls that a few years ago his agency created two spots for the Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays -- better known as P-FLAG. One commercial linked the anti-gay opinions of right-wingers like Jesse Helms, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson with teen suicides among gays -- and both ran footage of the three making anti-gay remarks.

The agency submitted the spots to local stations in Atlanta, Tulsa and Houston, and to CNN for Larry King Live. CNN reportedly was ready to run the ads when Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network found out and threatened to sue any station that aired them. Although Markman says that CNN's lawyers had approved the spots, the news network backed off. Suddenly, no station or cable system in Atlanta would touch the stuff. The campaign ran briefly in Tulsa until it "got scared off the air" there, too.

Markman, understandably, was irked. "There's no thirst among broadcasters for any kind of controversy, nor is there any sense of public obligation," he says. "But they seem not to care if a message backed by a large sum of money comes from the nuclear power industry. When a little guy comes along with $100,000 he can spend over a weekend -- a guy who doesn't represent any income stream -- they don't want it."

In fairness, back in 1991, CNN rejected a Zimmerman & Markman anti-Gulf War spot called "Body Bag," but repeatedly covered the spot in its news programming. "It ran on CNN many more times than we would have been able to afford running it," Markman chuckles.

It's no-sale day!

Possible record-holders for TV rejection are the anti-advertising crusaders at The Media Foundation in Vancouver, Canada. Best known for its Adbusters magazine, the group has produced six capitalism-bashing campaigns since 1989. 'Un-commercials' urge people to reduce an "unsustainable" level of buying that the foundation sees as a cause for many of the world's economic and environmental woes. A spot called "The Product is You," for example, features a couch potato with a bar code tattooed on the back of his neck.

Some stations have taken spots publicizing the group's annual Buy Nothing Day, but by and large, The Media Foundation has been stonewalled in most TV markets. When Adbusters editor Kalle Lasn talks with station managers, "they say things like, 'Well, why should we shoot ourselves in the foot by running your ads? We don't have to work against our legitimate business interests.' "

CNN has accepted ads for Buy Nothing Day, but rejected other Media Foundation spots that the news network felt "violated the standard norms of good taste.' (One such spot, a Calvin Klein Obsession spoof, asks why nine out of 10 women feel bad about their own bodies, as a bulimic is shown hunched over a toilet. The spot ends with the tag, "The beauty industry is the beast.")

Lasn's biggest bone to pick, though, is with the Big Three, and never mind what law professors have to say about broadcasters' First Amendment rights. "The airwaves they're using are public airwaves -- they belong to me and you," the Estonia-born activist argues. "They are leased by the FCC to the broadcasters. I don't see why citizens should have fewer rights than product advertisers in the land of the free and the home of the brave."

Lasn invokes the FCC's Fairness Doctrine, which, before it was repealed about 10 years ago, said that broadcasters were obligated to cover important issues in their communities, and to provide differing views on these issues. "What do you get if you have 3,000 marketing messages a day pumped into your head that say, 'Buy, buy, buy,' and not a single message is allowed that says, 'Don't buy'?" Lasn asks. "The product advertisers are doing all the talking."

Soapbox Opera

To echo Peter Finch's immortal cry from Network, Lasn is mad as hell and he's not going to take it anymore. His organization is searching for lawyers to launch a pro bono First Amendment suit against the Big Three. "There has not been a legal challenge since the Fairness Doctrine was zapped," Lasn says. "We are contending that not just single ads but whole classes of information are being kept off the air. If we can prove that, then we have a chance of having a ruling in our favor."

Observes one cynical media source: "Most of these groups know the networks are not going to take their ads, and they announce they were refused so they can get publicity for their cause."

Well, it's perfectly all right to get free publicity on Buy Nothing Day, isn't

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