Last month we learned that the CBS network would air a television spot during the Super Bowl from the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family. The commercial tells the story of Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow and his mother Pam. Pam, who became ill while pregnant in 1987 while on a Christian missionary trip to the Philippines, rejected her doctor's advice to terminate her pregnancy and ultimately gave birth to Tim.
This is not the first time rumors have swirled around controversial Super Bowl ads. Historically, such ads are rejected by networks as too contentious and divisive. For example, in 2004 CBS rejected an ad from the United Church of Christ which said that its doors were open to all people, including gay men and lesbians (a rather ironic rejection since the ad's message was inclusion).
The situation seemed to be playing out similarly this year. But as we tracked the rumors about the Focus on the Family ad, the usual network denial became conspicuously absent. Last week we all learned that CBS had contradicted its long-enforced policy banning overtly ideological ads and agreed to run Focus on the Family's commercial. In response to calls of hypocrisy from other advocacy organizations (including reproductive rights groups) CBS announced that others are welcome to run opposing ads, to the tune of $2-3 million.
While NARAL Pro-Choice New York fundamentally objects to Focus on the Family's anti-choice positions, we take specific issue with the process that CBS employed in accepting the ad. By failing to make its about-face in policy clear to the public, CBS has acted neither transparently nor fairly.
Airing an ad of our own would indeed be the appropriate recourse. Decades of pro-choice activism have taught us that when we encounter a position with which we disagree, rather than trying to eliminate or censor it, we should offer a counter-position. Being able to clearly and logically present our pro-choice message, backing that position with a reasoned explanation of our values, has gained us the rights we have today. As the free speech dictum goes: speech we don't like should be met with more speech, not less. But by surreptitiously and unexpectedly changing its policy, CBS has effectively denied us the ability to respond with an equal and adequate counter-argument.
Focus on the Family had substantial time to craft this ad and raise the millions necessary to air it. CBS's offer - made at the eleventh hour - is simply not realistic. I don't know of an advocacy organization with an extra $3 million on hand and that can produce an ad quickly enough to get it approved by the network.
This situation has dealt a blow to transparency and fair speech and at the end of the day Focus on the Family can claim their victory of having a 30 second spot clustered amid commercials for beer, chips and banks. In the meantime we will continue to spend our time --and money -- doing what we do every day: working to make sure that every woman has the right, and the ability, to access safe, legal reproductive healthcare and to exercise her right to make the decisions that are best for and her family.