Berkowitz and Gutman: Third and long for free speech on CBS

In 1985, President Reagan moved the celebration of his second Inauguration. He did not move it for political purposes or to coincide with the release of hostages: The president moved it for the Super Bowl.

And with good reason — that year, more than 85 million people (about one in three Americans) tuned in to watch. The number has only grown in the last 25 years. Last night, some tuned in to see Tracy Porter’s fourth quarter interception and touchdown, and just as many watched to see new advertisements, which bring in hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

This year, the advertisements got more hype than usual. In a new policy that some suspect to have been a response to the poor economy, CBS decided that commercials promoting one side of “current controversial issue[s] of public importance,” were fair game; as long as content was inoffensive, then free speech in “issues” ads was welcome. An Evangelical organization, Focus on the Family, made its Super Bowl advertisement debut using University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow to bring its pro-life message to a day of pigskins and revelry. It was the first time that an organization that publicly opposes abortions and condemns homosexuality got airtime during the Super Bowl.

While CBS claims that its new policy is open to all “issues” ads, its choice not to air an ad featuring gay men raises questions about whether CBS’s policy is for free speech or for promoting a particular message. Man Crunch, a male dating site, proposed an ad featuring two men watching a football game when their hands touch, sparks fly and their tongues meet. CBS said that, among other reasons, the ad “is not within the Network’s Broadcast Standards for Super Bowl Sunday.” Apparently a “miracle baby” is fine but not miracles of male love.

This is not the first time that CBS has silenced organizations with advertisements directed at those who are allied with the LBGT community. In 2004, before the new “issues” policy, the United Church of Christ hoped to air an ad during the Super Bowl proclaiming its acceptance of individuals that identify as LGBT. Just days before the ad was supposed to air, CBS decided that the commercial — which had aired on other channels — was too controversial to run.

To be fair, the Focus on the Family commercial that aired during the pre-game show was tame by advertising standards, and its pro-life message was ambiguous. Pam Tebow, Tim’s mother, stood against a white background and talked about her baby who “almost didn’t make it into this world.” It seemed more like a health insurance ad than an anti-abortion spot; Pam simply mentioned medical bumps and scares that occurred during her pregnancy and Tim Tebow’s childhood. It even took a comical turn when the All-American tackled his mother really, really hard. Pam never said anything about the abortion she almost chose to have because continuing the pregnancy could have cost her her life — the commercial simply directed viewers to Focus on the Family’s Web site to learn more about the Tebow story. Only online can one find Pam speaking of God’s will and the decision not to abort what doctors thought was a “tumor” because of God’s ultimate plan.

But while the Tebow ad that aired did not shock and awe, it brought CBS’s new policy to the forefront. By allowing “issues ads” to be played, CBS seems to be promoting freedom of speech, but by choosing the issues it plays, it seems to be taking sides as well.

While CBS is a private company that can choose the content it airs on its network, without the worry of the First Amendment, this Super Bowl season CBS seem to have broken its own Constitution. If CBS says they will accept all “issues” ads that are appropriate, then the company should accept all “issues ads” that are appropriate. By not accepting certain ads that Americans may find controversial, the company is solely selling its ideology while claiming equal access to all. Man Crunch wanted to sell a forum for finding male love; CBS decided male love must be lost.

If Focus on the Family can beat out Man Crunch, which ideas can be promoted under CBS’s new policy and which fall out of bounds? CBS’s policy may make the company seem like a democracy, but its selectivity calls CBS’s sincerity into question. CBS may be letting more ideas be heard under its new equal access policy, but more likely, its censors are leaving some speechless.

Ari Berkowitz is a sophomore in Berkeley College. Collin Gutman is a senior in Pierson College and a sports

columnist for the News.

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