MTV has refused to accept a commercial opposing a war in Iraq, citing a policy against advocacy spots that it says protects the channel from having to run ads from any cash-rich interest group whose cause may be loathsome.
Nonetheless, viewers in New York and Los Angeles will be able to see the rejected spot from Not in Our Name starting today on MTV's "Total Request Live" and "Direct Effect", because its backers did an end-run around the channel by buying time on local cable providers.
As other advocates have butted up against similar policies prohibiting advocacy ads at most national television channels, they have increasingly resorted to making local buys. A few minutes of commercial time are reserved each hour for local cable operators or broadcast affiliates.
Commercials for and against a war, with celebrities like Susan Sarandon, Janeane Garofalo and Fred Thompson, have lately been rejected by networks, cable channels and affiliates, before finding safer haven on regional cable operators like Time Warner Cable and Comcast. A commercial starring Martin Sheen, who plays the president of the United States on NBC's "West Wing," appeared in Washington and New York via local cable companies, without even trying any national buys.
The commercial just rejected by MTV was directed by Barbara Kopple, winner of two Academy Awards for her documentaries. In the ad, young people speak to the camera about their opposition to a war, with scenes from recent antiwar marches interspersed through the spot. Although MTV included parts of the rejected commercial in one news segment on March 5, timed to coincide with youth protests, network executives said accepting money to show it would cross a line.
"The decision was made years ago that we don't accept advocacy advertising because it really opens us up to accepting every point of view on every subject," said Graham James, a spokesman at MTV in New York. (MTV also turned down an ad from the group True Majority that featured Ms. Garofalo.)
Most networks and cable channels share that view. For example, CNN, in accordance with its policy against advocacy ads related to regions in conflict, rejected ads from the governments of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates as well as a group trying to bolster support for Israel.
But in times of crisis, when such policies block the plans of advocacy groups trying to influence events, the rules become more visible and the object of intense criticism.
"It is irresponsible for news organizations not to accept ads that are controversial on serious issues, assuming they are not scurrilous or in bad taste," said Alex Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard. "In the world we live in, with the kind of media concentration we have, the only way that unpopular beliefs can be aired sometimes is if the monopoly vehicle agrees to accept an ad."
Miles Solay, a youth representative of Not in Our Name, said, "From the very beginning, the antiwar movement has had to buy some free speech." He added that even MTV's coverage of antiwar sentiment has not made up for what his group viewed as promotional segments on military life or an hourlong forum with Tony Blair, prime minister of Britain and President Bush's closest ally on Iraq.
For the network to reject an anti-war spot when it routinely runs recruiting commercials for the military is inconsistent, Mr. Solay said.
Despite anticipating resistance at MTV, Not in Our Name and its allies decided to try to make a commercial for the channel.
"It's important for young people to be heard and have an outlet," Ms. Kopple said. She and the staff at her production company, Cabin Creek Center in New York, worked free to film and edit the spot.
Supporters of an invasion of Iraq have seen doors slammed on them as well.
The Citizens United Foundation, a group that ran commercials in 1991 supporting the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, made its own commercial supporting President Bush and a possible war in Iraq. Starring Fred Thompson, a former Republican Senator and an actor now appearing on "Law & Order," the spot was produced to counter the celebrity factor of the Sheen spot and others from the antiwar camp.
When the group tried to buy commercial time during "Meet the Press" on the NBC affiliate in Washington, the affiliate declined, saying it had refused the Sheen commercial, too, and needed to be fair.
"It's wrong for them to reject Martin Sheen's ad and the Fred Thompson ad," said David N. Bossie, president of the Citizens United Foundation in Sterling, Va.
"They should reserve their right to reject things," he added, "but they should not reject everything, just to protect themselves from having to make hard decisions."
Broadcast operations with blanket no-advocacy policies include CBS, ABC, NBC, and Fox Broadcasting, along with cable channels like CNN and MTV, a Viacom subsidiary.
The policy at CBS protects the integrity of its news department, the public discourse and local sensibilities around the country, said Martin Franks, executive vice president. He added that local affiliates were free to accept such ads if they deemed them inoffensive to the community. "How could you take an advocacy ad and have it reflect the values of the entire nation?" he asked.
"On the CBS television network," he added, "we think that informed discussion comes from our news programming."
Fox News, a News Corporation sibling of Fox Broadcasting, said it reserved some flexibility in its decision making.
"We evaluate everything on a case-by-case basis," said Kevin Brown, vice president for Eastern sales. Controversial commercials must be checked for accuracy and any legal liability they might create for Fox, he said.
Advocacy groups, however, have discovered one benefit of having their ads blocked: they often get news coverage for their causes by holding news conferences to denounce the rejection of their commercials. And Mr. Thompson was even invited onto "Meet the Press," where the ad was shown in its entirety and he got to argue in favor of war in Iraq.
But the flurry of free news coverage is just a consolation prize, said Mr. Jones of the Shorenstein Center. "That's a game of very highly diminishing returns. Maybe that happens for a couple of days, and then it goes away."
Posted on aef.com: March 17, 2003.
Nat Ives, The New York Times. March 13, 2003