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CBS Censorship of Political Ad During Super Bowl

From the radio newsmagazine
Between The Lines
Between the Lines Q&A
A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
for release Feb. 9, 2004

CBS Censorship of Political Ad During Super Bowl Sparks Debate on Media Access

Interview with Zack Exley, organizing director of's Voter Fund conducted by Scott Harris


When millions of viewers around the world tuned into this year's Super Bowl, they saw an exciting football game, a little more than expected of Janet Jackson during the halftime show, and a flurry of costly advertisements for beer, razor blades and junk food. But what millions of Super Bowl viewers did not see was a 30-second political ad titled "Child's Pay" that calls attention to the Bush administration's $1 trillion dollar deficit.

The ad, which depicts young children working in adult jobs, beat out 1,600 other entries in a contest titled, "Bush in 30 Seconds," run by, an Internet-based progressive activist group. Although MoveOn raised $1.6 million dollars to pay for the ad during the Super Bowl, CBS refused to sell them air time, claiming that the "Child's Pay" spot violated the network's policy prohibiting the broadcast of advocacy advertisements.

Although the ad wasn't seen during the Super Bowl, the ensuing controversy has given MoveOn a blizzard of free publicity focusing on issues of censorship and the responsibility of broadcasters to allow all sides to have their say on important issues affecting our society. Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with Zack Exley, organizing director with the Voter Fund, who discusses the ad controversy and the goals of Moveon's 1.7 million-member organization in this year's presidential election campaign.

Zack Exley: For better or for worse, American politics -- I think for worse -- American politics are driven by these 30-second ads. Ninety percent of the political expression that happens in elections have become terrible. I don't know whether it's the culture of consultants who produce them or the candidates who order them up, but these ads have just become negative and boring and simplistic and very uncreative. When we were thinking about how this year we were going to be raising a lot of money to run a lot of these ads ourselves, we wanted to branch out and give our own membership a chance -- to give regular people and amateurs out there -- to produce some ads. And so that's where we came up with the idea. We did get 1,600 ads. The membership voted on and rated the ads themselves and we narrowed it down to a group of about 20 or 30 finalists. The winner for the main category was really a great ad. We went out and asked our membership if they would donate $1.6 million to run it on the Super Bowl, run a 30-second ad on the Super Bowl, that's how much it costs to run a 30-second ad on the Super Bowl.

The amazing thing is that they wouldn't run our ad because they said it would be offensive. Whether they knew or not about what Janet Jackson was going to do, they knew that they were going to run a number of ads that were basically using mostly naked women to sell beer -- you guys have probably covered this on previous issues of your show. CBS is in the middle of lobbying the White House for some changes to FCC rules that will save them millions and millions of dollars. So it's all very suspect and it was just a sad day, I think, for media fairness when they turned down this ad.

Between The Lines: So what was your reaction initially? Did you use the power of the Internet to flood CBS with a lot of letters of complaint? What happened next?

Zack Exley: We've got 1.7 million people who receive our emails and participate in our campaigns and we did tell them about this. And after all, thousands and thousands of people had donated money to pay for these ads to put them on the Super Bowl. So yeah, CBS got a lot of calls, got a lot of emails and they got the message. We also directed calls and emails to the FCC. But in the end, because of the controversy, the ad got played so many times that we probably got more viewers of this ad with CBS not running it, than if they had run it.

Between The Lines: There was one other bit of confirmation that has arrived as a very powerful and dangerous organization for the Republican Party, when they attacked two of the 1,600 ad entries for comparing Bush to Hitler.

Zack Exley: Out of 1,600 ads, two ads, they weren't well-done ads at all, they were just something that two different people slapped together. The only time I've ever seen the ads was on TV because the RNC (Republican National Committee) distributed them to all the networks to play on their news shows. And yeah, it was a concerted hit. Hardly anybody saw those ads on our site, because all the bad ads just dropped out of rotation during voting and those ads were gone after just a few hours. Probably less than a hundred people saw both of those ads.

So just think about what that means. It means that the Republican Party had probably an army of researchers watching all of the ads. They recorded probably all of them. They pulled those two out, put them on TV and Ed Gillespie, the chairman of the RNC, every single day for seven days, for a whole week, he plugged the story on the news, every talk show he could get on. Yeah, I think they were trying to discredit MoveOn, but at the same time, they were just pushing their line. They're very aggressive about attacking the Democrats and attacking anybody who disagrees with them, as being radical leftists, being crazy people who would compare Bush to Hitler. But in this case, I think it actually backfired on them. I don't think they were taken seriously and I think the message got out that this was actually an ad contest with thousands of submissions by regular people, that it was actually an expression of democracy, and I don't think that attack served them well.

Between The Lines: Just for 30 seconds, let's hear one of the runners-up to the ad that won high praise from your membership. This one is called, "What Are We Teaching Our Children?"

Excerpted from the ad:

Boy, standing at a podium in a mock presidential campaign: "If elected, I'll lie about weapons of mass destruction, as a pretext to invade another country."

2nd boy: "I'll call myself an environmentalist and gut clean air standards."

Girl: "Our allies will go from respecting us to hating us. And I don't care."

3rd boy: "I'll leave no child behind, unless they can't afford it."

2nd girl: "I promise to keep you in a state of fear and anxiety so you never question what we're doing."

4th boy: "And if you do, we'll call you unpatriotic."

Between The Lines: Zack, what's the goal of in this presidential campaign season. What do you hope to do?

Zack Exley: The MoveOn Voter Fund is trying to put out, just trying to get the facts on the Bush record out to the voters and especially to the voters in those states that matter so much in this election. You know the Bush administration, more than probably any administration in my lifetime is willing to just completely lie, just tell very blatant and simple lies about their own record. So laws that allow polluters to pollute more are called the "Clear Skies Initiative," for example, and we need to refute those lies. We need to get the actual facts about what the Bush administration is doing, out to the voters. That's our goal and we're going to do whatever it takes to achieve that goal.

View the winners of MoveOn's "Bush in 30 Seconds" ad contest by visiting the group's website at

Related links on our website at's winning Super Bowl ads


Scott Harris is executive producer with Between The Lines, which can be heard on over 35 radio stations. This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines (, for the week ending Feb. 13, 2004. This Between The Lines Q&A was compiled by Anna Manzo and Scott Harris.

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