THE BLOG
04/06/2006 09:08 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Not-Quite-Public Airwaves

The notion that the public's airwaves are, in fact, public, is getting harder and harder to believe. There are a growing number of progressive voices seeking television advertising time, for example, and are perfectly willing and able to pay for the privilege, but are facing restrictions that keep their message off the air.

The latest example comes by way of MoveOn.org's political action committee, which unveiled a hard-hitting new ad campaign this week, called the "Red Handed" series, which some NBC viewers will not see on a television near them.

The ads, to be sure, are aggressive. MoveOn.org highlights the votes of four vulnerable Republican House incumbents -- Reps. Nancy Johnson (Conn.), Deborah Pryce (Ohio), Chris Chocola (Ind.) and Thelma Drake (Va.) -- all of whom, the ad explains, accepted campaign contributions from energy companies, only to later vote "against bills that would have penalized those companies for price gouging." The ad notes that these lawmakers, like Tom DeLay, Dick Cheney, and Jack Abramoff, have been "caught red-handed."

MoveOn.org showed the ads to test audiences and the public found them to be devastating. Some NBC affiliates in two of the lawmakers' hometowns saw the ads and came to a different conclusion -- inappropriate for public consumption.

WCMH in Columbus, Ohio, and WVIT in Hartford, Conn., announced this week that they would not broadcast the ads. MoveOn.org released a statement saying, "We expected Republicans to respond, but we didn't expect two local NBC stations owned by GE to refuse to run our ad." The group added, "This smells of NBC pursuing its own political agenda at the expense of free speech and balance."

It also smells like a pattern.

* Last week, the United Church of Christ unveiled a new TV ad campaign that told viewers of its progressive, tolerant approach to diversity. "God doesn't reject people. Neither do we," the UCC explained. "No matter who you are or where you are on life's journey, you're welcome here." ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox all declined to air the commercial. As an NBC spokesperson said, the ad "violates our long-standing policy against airing commercials that deal with issues of public controversy."

* In November, Fox News Channel announced it would not broadcast commercials criticizing Samuel Alito's Supreme Court nomination.

* Last summer, a Utah television station, owned by Clear Channel Communications (a major GOP donor) refused to show viewers an ad, featuring Cindy Sheehan, that spoke out in opposition to the war in Iraq. The station, KTVX, a local ABC affiliate, said the content "could very well be offensive to our community in Utah, which has contributed more than its fair share of fighting soldiers and suffered significant loss of life in this Iraq war."

* In December 2004, the United Church of Christ faced its first rejection from the major television networks, when CBS and NBC refused to air an ad that told viewers that everyone is welcome at the church's congregations. This, too, was deemed "too controversial."

* In January 2004, MoveOn.org tried to buy ad time during the Super Bowl with a commercial highlighting the problems with the ever-growing federal budget deficit. CBS, which aired the game in 2004, rejected the spot because it was an "issue ad," though the network accepted Super Bowl other issue advertising, including an anti-smoking ad, a public service announcement about AIDS, and a commercial from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

The "public's airwaves" apparently aren't "publicly available" to everyone.