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January 31, 2004

The Disgrace? of CBS 

Senator Durbin, from the floor of the Senate, 27 January

Recently I learned that the CBS television network, which claims to be the No. 1, most-watched network, with more than 200 affiliated stations, rejected an ad for its upcoming Super Bowl broadcast that will be on Sunday. CBS's explanation for rejecting this ad was that their network prohibited the showing of advertisements that take stands on controversial public policy issues.

So what was this controversial, dangerous ad which CBS is protecting American viewers from watching? Well, it was an ad sponsored by a nonprofit organization called MoveOn.Org. You can find it on your Web site at MoveOn.Org. You can see the ad. This 30-second ad shows several children working unhappily in a variety of grownup jobs.

When you go to the Web site and bring up this ad, you can see a little girl cleaning the floor of a commercial building with music playing in the background, a boy washing dishes at a restaurant, another youngster working on an assembly line in a factory, another fixing tires at an automobile shop, and another collecting trash for the back of a truck.

The ad ends with this line:

Guess who's going to pay off President Bush's $1 trillion deficit?

That is the controversial ad. The ad that CBS doesn't want America to see, which those who are following this debate can go to and see this "dangerous," "controversial" ad that crosses the line, an ad which CBS is going to protect the American people from even getting a chance to see. These are some of the still photos from that ad showing kids in working situations, and closing with one short tag line:

Guess who's going to pay off President Bush's $1 trillion deficit?

CBS is afraid of this ad. They are afraid if the American people see it, they would be so caught up in the controversy of this ad, it would just be unfair.

Is it controversial? Is this ad too hot for network TV? Would America be traumatized and changed forever viewing this dangerous, controversial, 30-second ad? Well, clearly not. This ad makes two factual assertions every American knows to be true. First, it says we are facing a growing national debt, a debt exceeding $1 trillion, which has to be paid off by future generations. Guess what. Those future generations are going to be comprised of our children.

Second, in those few words at the close of the ad, it says President Bush and his administration have to accept responsibility for creating this debt--a fact President Bush's own budget documents readily admit, a fact substantiated by President Bush's programs of tax cuts for the wealthy. Everybody with even a short-term memory recalls that only a few years ago we were dealing with a budgetary surplus under the Clinton administration. Now we are deep in historic debt year after year after year during the Bush administration. To argue the Bush administration's hands are clean when it comes to America's debt defies common sense and history. So what is so controversial about these unambiguous facts that our children will be inheriting a large national deficit created since the time President George W. Bush took office? Since when has stating the truth--and obvious truth at that--turned out to be too controversial for America to witness?

Maybe controversy is in the eye of the beholder, and the eye of CBS now runs from controversy. Or maybe there is another dynamic at work. Maybe network executives at CBS are so afraid of political pressure from the rightwing and their business advertisers who are in league with the rightwing politics of America that they are afraid to put anything on the air that might in fact make things uncomfortable. If that is the case, it is time for CBS to announce the name of their network is the "conservative broadcasting system" and come clean with American viewers.

Look at the record, though. CBS has run controversial ads, many of which were good for America to see. Ads sponsored by the White House Drug Control Policy Agency confronted a tough issue, maybe in controversial terms to some, but ads that were important. The White House Drug Policy ad that ran during last year's Super Bowl accused American drug companies of directly supporting international terrorism that led to the taking of lives of American citizens. Risky, edgy, controversial? Yes. Did we have a right to see that as Americans? You bet we did.

Why was CBS ready to run those ads a year ago, but won't let address the issue of the debt of America that will be borne by our children? CBS also runs ads by tobacco companies and antismoking groups to advocate viewpoints on health. In fact, they are scheduled to run during the Super Bowl--ads from two different groups, which are the American Legacy Foundation and Phillip Morris, which are basically antismoking adds. I fully support these ads. Some may view them as controversial. But so what. If these airwaves are truly the realm of the public to learn, why do we run away from a controversial ad even if it relates to a public health policy some disagree with?

CBS also routinely runs a whole range of controversial, if not downright offensive, ads during the Super Bowl. We have seen that CBS has no qualms about running ads featuring comely young women mud wrestling while a couple of beer-drinking fellows look on. Controversial? Perhaps to some, but they will run those ads. It appears CBS executives consider it important to run not one, two, but three separate ads promoting drugs for sexual dysfunction during the Super Bowl. They believe in a national debate on such sexual problems is more important to the public interest than a discussion about the future of this Nation. In the CBS eye, sexual dysfunction is a topic families with children can watch. But budgetary dysfunction, which our children will pay for, is just too controversial, too hot to handle.

So how does CBS define controversial content? Let's take a look at what goes into their thinking. Remember the series on President Ronald Reagan? The CBS executives did a complete reversal overnight and pulled the plug on the miniseries, "The Reagans," after spending millions of dollars producing it. We learned that the decision was made after conservative Republicans barraged the boardroom and executives and said we cannot run this, even though we have not seen it. In fact, CBS caved in, without the public ever having seen one single episode.

These are the same executives at CBS, incidentally, who, during 1999 and 2000 gave 98 percent of their soft money political contributions to the Republican Party. They decided this ad, which just might raise a question about President Bush's policies leading this Nation, and the deficit and debt our children face, those same CBS executives said we don't think we ought to step into this controversial area.

The major pharmaceutical companies, which will be running ads on three different sexual dysfunction drugs during the Super Bowl, have also been consistently placed among the five top spenders on lobbying the Republican Congress and in soft money and PAC contributions to Republican candidates.

Now let's connect all the dots because there is something more direct and topical behind this CBS decision, from my point of view. These are the same executives at CBS who successfully lobbied this Congress to change the FCC rules on TV station ownership to their corporate advantage. The provision that was sneaked into the Omnibus appropriation bill that passed last week and has been signed by the President. It establishes a new ceiling of 39 percent as the maximum percentage of American TV viewers in a market that may be reached by TV stations owned by any one company. Remember that number, 39 percent.

Before the FCC adopted rules in June to raise the cap to 45 percent, the cap was limited to 35 percent. Upset at what the FCC had done, a strong majority in the House and Senate agreed to roll back the FCC rule and take it back down to 35 percent. Why is this important? The White House and the Republicans in this conference on this Omnibus appropriation bill, with no Democrats present, came up with a figure of 39 percent as the new cap--39 percent. What is so magic about 39 percent? Allow me to explain. This wasn't chosen at random; it wasn't a good-faith compromise. No, it just so happens that Viacom, which owns CBS, currently owns stations reaching 38.8 percent of American households, and Rupert Murdoch's news corporation, the owners of that "fair and balanced" Fox Network, owns stations reaching 37.8 percent.

Interesting. Interesting that the White House and Republican leaders in Congress pushed a provision in a spending bill in the dark of night, without Democrats present, that benefited two corporations when it came to their ownership of television stations--Fox, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Republican Party, and now Viacom, CBS. Both entities currently violate the old FCC limitation. They needed this new language. They would have been forced to sell off stations if their Republican friends in Congress and the White House had not come through for them.

So the White House and the congressional Republicans give CBS a significant corporate favor and CBS rewards them by killing an ad critical of the Bush White House during the Super Bowl. Doesn't that sound like a perfect subject for a "60 Minutes" investigation? Oh, I forget. "60 Minutes" is a CBS program. I don't think we are going to hear about this on "60 Minutes." I don't think Mike Wallace and Lesley Stahl are going to be taking an undercover camera into the boardrooms of CBS to find out what is going on there.

Listen to what our colleague, Senator JOHN MCCAIN of Arizona, said about this provision that was sneaked into this bill at the last minute to benefit Viacom and CBS, the biggest corporate favor they could ever ask for. I am quoting my colleague, Senator JOHN MCCAIN, who said on the floor:

This provision is objectionable because while purporting to address public concerns about excessive media consolidation, it really only addresses the concerns of special interests. It is no coincidence, my friends--

And this is JOHN MCCAIN speaking--

that the 39 percent is the exact ownership percentage of Viacom and CBS. Why did they pick 39 percent? So that these two major conglomerates would be grandfathered in, purportedly, in order to reduce the media ownership, which was voted down 55 to 40 in the Senate. The fact is now they are endorsing Viacom and CBS's 39 percent ownership, grandfathering them in because they should have been at 35 percent.

In the words of Senator McCain:


It is clear from the examples, such as the rejection of's ad, that CBS and other media companies are dominant in a marketplace that exercises vast influence over what the American people can see on television. This is exhibit A in the case against media concentration.

Too much power has been given to media executives who now are going to pick and choose and censor the content of political material which we as Americans can see. They can decide on one hand that their friends will be favored with ads and then reject ads critical of their political friends as just too controversial for America to witness.

That is exactly what they have done on this ad. CBS is able to reject and anyone else whose views they disagree with because the executives know there are thousands of other companies standing in line ready to pay for ads during the Super Bowl.

It all comes down to this: Through years of deregulation, we have created a situation in America where massive media conglomerates, such as CBS, are operating without any effective oversight and with little or no feeling of responsibility to the public.

It used to be people remembered that the airwaves these TV stations use don't belong to these TV stations, they don't belong to the media giants, such as Viacom, they don't belong to CBS. They belong to you, me, and every American. We allow these companies to use the airwaves, and they make a fortune. We licensed them for that purpose. We used to say, before the Reagan administration changed the law: If you are going to use America's airwaves, you have to be fair in the use of the airwaves. The fairness doctrine was thrown out. Now the only standard is that they only have to serve the public interest.

It is such a vague term, "serve the public interest," that CBS, undoubtedly, can get by with rejecting ads for political reasons, such as their rejection of this ad. But if the public interest standard is to mean anything, it must require broadcast licensees to air diverse points of view on issues of national interest.

It is all right for me as an American to watch something on television with which, frankly, I disagree. Maybe I want to pick up the phone and call the station manager or register my complaint with one group or the other. Isn't that what free speech in America is all about? Not from CBS's point of view. From the CBS point of view, they will pick and choose what you can watch. Ads for beer with young folks doing things which maybe you don't want your children to see--not controversial. Ads by pharmaceutical companies for sexual dysfunction drugs you may not want your children to watch--not controversial. But an ad which says that our children are going to pay off a $1 trillion national debt created by this administration--over the line, way too scandalous, way too controversial. Children and good American families should not be subjected to that, in the eyes of CBS. I certainly disagree.

Broadcasters and executives running broadcast stations should remember that, first and foremost, they are journalists. They have a responsibility to the American people to speak the truth, to give us the information and let us decide. They have a professional and ethical obligation to be fair and balanced, even if it means they have to set aside their own political views and prejudices and perhaps--perhaps--just once in a while, step on the toes of their political allies and friends, even the ones who just handsomely rewarded them with the provision in the recent appropriations bill.

While broadcasters may wish to exercise their discretion in selecting ads that would run afoul of a community's decency standards, broadcasters should not and must not become censors of content. That is the fundamental promise of the first amendment. It is wrong for the Government to censor content. It is wrong for corporate stewards of our public airwaves to do so.

I hope the American people will not sit idly by and watch as these media giants, such as CBS, become bigger, more powerful, and decide just exactly what we as Americans will get to see on TV.

You can vote on the future of CBS here.

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