CBS Shows Ideological Bias in Accepting Super Bowl Ads

February 1, 2010

Last month CBS announced that it would air a "life- and family-affirming" television ad by the Religious Right group Focus on the Family during the Super Bowl on February 7.  The words "life- and family-affirming" are almost always code words for "anti-choice" or "anti-gay."  According to reports , the ad will feature 2007 Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow and his mother, Pam, and is "likely to be an anti-abortion message chronicling Pam Tebow's 1987 pregnancy.  After getting sick during a mission trip to the Philippines, she ignored a recommendation by doctors to abort her fifth child and gave birth to Tim." 

Right wingers were quick to defend Focus on the Family.  For example, through her Facebook profile, Sarah Palin urged CBS to "just do the right thing.  Don't cave.  Have the backbone to run the ad."

Although I object to the substance of Focus on the Family's message, I have no problem in principle with CBS's decision to air the advertisement.  In a nation that values Free Speech, the response to speech one dislikes is to answer it with more speech.  Censorship is for tyrants and autocrats.

The problem, however, is that CBS has effectively muzzled speech by rejecting ads for progressive organizations.  In 2004 CBS rejected a 30-second ad by MoveOn.org President Bush , which Salon called "a low-key attack on Bush's fiscal irresponsibility that's unlikely to make anyone very angry."  That same year, CBS turned down the United Church of Christ when it wanted to air a Super Bowl ad that celebrated diversity and welcomed gay and lesbian Christians to the denomination.  Last week, CBS rejected a commercial for a gay dating site called ManChrunch.com.  As Super Bowl commercials go, the commercial is rather tame.  It depicts two men excitedly watching the game; their hands brush as they reach for a bowl of chips; suddenly, the two begin kissing, much to the shock of the guy sitting next to them. The New York Post concluded that the ad is "no more racy than nearly any beer commercial not starring the Budweiser Clydesdales."  (You can watch it for yourself here .)

CBS has reasoned that it would not air ads where "substantial elements of the community [are] in opposition to one another."  Yet the Focus on the Family ad would appear to be at least as divisive and politically charged as ads that CBS has refused to air in the past. CBS's ideological bias is a reminder that speech can hardly be free when it is subject to the arbitrary decisions of those who control access to the media.

Read CFI's letter to CBS's executives about the Focus on the Family ad on our Office of Public Policy web site .