Saturday, January 30, 2010

On freedom of speach

Okay, so as soon as it was announced that Focus on the Family would be running an ad about abortion starring football-media-darling Tim Tebow during the Super Bowl, you knew there would be opposition from women's and/or liberal groups. And when that opposition arose, you knew there would be counter-opposition in the form of 1., "Tim Tebow is God's own anointed quarterback, so it's best to just give him what he wants," and 2., "FREEDOM OF SPEACH MOTHER EFFERS!"

And as soon as that popped out, you knew ACG was going to get that twitchy thing below her left eye, because she hate-hate-HATES that argument.

And it's not like I haven't made this point before, but obviously Practically Harmless doesn't have a voice loud enough to reach the whole world (or even the comments thread at SB Nation). And so I shall embark once again on what ma have to become a regular feature: Freedom of Speach Watch: This Has Nothing to Do With the First Amendment.

Because it doesn't. The question of the government's censorship of lawful expression isn't at issue here--and that's what the First Amendment addresses, your not-complete-but-pretty-comprehensive freedom from censorship by the government. But having the right to say something and having a venue to say it are two different things, and no one is required to provide you with the latter, regardless of how they feel about the former.

And that's what's at issue here: the venue. This is a particularly big issue because it's a particularly big venue--Super Bowl Ex Ell Eye Vee is expected to bring in 150 million viewers in the U.S. alone. That's $2.5 million for 30 seconds that will reach 150 million people live, plus the countless others who will be watching and re-watching the ads online. A study by Nielsen suggests that 51 percent of viewers will be tuning in to CBS just for the ads. So CBS has likely taken great care in the way they've sold and distributed ad space, and with a hot button issue like abortion, a lot of people are going to be paying attention to how they do it.

So how do they do it?

- In 2004, CBS turned down a Super Bowl ad from that negatively portrayed George Bush. (They approved ad buys from Anheuser-Busch featuring a farting Clydesdale and a sexually aggressive monkey.)

- That same year, CBS (and partner UPN, as well as NBC) refused to run two ads from the United Church of Christ as being "unacceptable for broadcast" for highlighting the UCC's acceptance of gays, racial minorities, and people with disabilities.

- Last year, NBC declined to run a PETA ad that they deemed too racy.

- This year, CBS turned down $3 million for an ad from a gay dating site.

- It's CBS's air time, and particularly on an occasion like this, they have a vested interest in keeping things largely neutral and inoffensive to viewers--they have a right to ban controversial ads as much as they do sexually provocative halftime shows and spicy language by sideline reporters in the interest of keeping things family-friendly.

So that's what the issue is here: not whether CBS is bound by the First Amendment but whether they have made a wise choice in how they've distributed their ad space.

And when women's groups speak up against it, you know what? That is protected free speach. They have as much right to their opinion as Focus on the Family has to theirs, and they've managed to find a venue (in this case, several media outlets) in which to express it. And they aren't even questioning Focus on the Family's right to run the ad, merely CBS's choice to show it during the Super Bowl.

Once we get past the government's non-interference with Focus on the Family's freedom of speach, it all comes down to one thing: market forces. Capitalism at its finest. CBS chooses to run the Focus on the Family ad because they'll get money to do it. Women's groups choose to protest, since CBS has declined to run similarly issue-y ads in the past. CBS shrugs. Ain't no skin off their bottom line.

What if the women's groups decided to take it further? They could start going for the skin on CBS's bottom line by, for instance, organizing a boycott of Super Bowl fixtures like Anheuser-Busch, Coca-Cola, and Doritos as long as CBS plans to run the Focus on the Family ad. Those companies could well go to CBS and saying, "This ain't worth it to us, CBS. It's us or Tebow." Forced to choose between Jesus and Benjamin Franklin, CBS would likely follow the money. And if (unlikely as it would be) that were to happen, it wouldn't be censorship--it would be business. Which is how the free market is supposed to work.

And thus I bring it back to me (because this is all, in the end, about me). How do I feel about CBS running the ad?

1. I'm agin it. If a network has a policy against running "issues" ads or "advocacy" ads, they need to stick to that policy and not run those ads--even if they come from a conservative politician or fundamentalist religious group.

2. I'm agin it. The "I'm glad my mom didn't abort me" argument always creeps me out anyway, but I also tend to raise an eyebrow at the "I could have had an abortion, but I didn't, and you can not-have one too" arguments. I'm glad that Mrs. Tebow was able to carry a very challenging--but very much wanted--pregnancy to completion, and I'm glad that she was able to make the choice to do so--but there are a lot of people who don't have the resources to do the former, and with Focus on the Family working hard to deny women the opportunity to do the latter, I have to call foul on this one.

3. I'm agin it. As sports columnist Gregg Doyel says, Super Bowl Sunday is a day for football, not pressing and divisive social issues. Eight o'clock Sunday morning is the time for moral and religious issues, and 6:30 (EST) Sunday evening is the time for athletic and officiating issues. Which means that I agree with Gregg Doyel. I'm agin that, too.

4. I'm agin it. Regardless of the subject, if you have an issue that's as significant and deeply felt as a woman's right to choose, it's certainly not best served shoehorned between a farting horse and a horny monkey.

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