…if there is no separation of State and Media.
CLEVELAND — The CBS and NBC television networks are refusing to run a 30-second television ad from the United Church of Christ because its all-inclusive welcome has been deemed “too controversial.”
The ad, part of the denomination’s new, broad identity campaign set to begin airing nationwide on Dec. 1, states that — like Jesus — the United Church of Christ seeks to welcome all people, regardless of ability, age, race, economic circumstance or sexual orientation.
According to a written explanation from CBS, the United Church of Christ is being denied network access because its ad implies acceptance of gay and lesbian couples — among other minority constituencies — and is, therefore, too “controversial.”
“Because this commercial touches on the exclusion of gay couples and other minority groups by other individuals and organizations,” reads an explanation from CBS, “and the fact the Executive Branch has recently proposed a Constitutional Amendment to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, this spot is unacceptable for broadcast on the [CBS and UPN] networks.”
Similarly, a rejection by NBC declared the spot “too controversial.”
“It’s ironic that after a political season awash in commercials based on fear and deception by both parties seen on all the major networks, an ad with a message of welcome and inclusion would be deemed too controversial,” says the Rev. John H. Thomas, the UCC’s general minister and president. “What’s going on here?”
Negotiations between network officials and the church’s representatives broke down today (Nov. 30), on the day before the ad campaign was set to begin airing nationwide on a combination of broadcast and cable networks. The ad has been accepted and will air on a number of networks, including ABC Family, AMC, BET, Discovery, Fox, Hallmark, History, Nick@Nite, TBS, TNT, Travel and TV Land, among others.
The debut 30-second commercial features two muscle-bound “bouncers” standing guard outside a symbolic, picturesque church and selecting which persons are permitted to attend Sunday services. Written text interrupts the scene, announcing, “Jesus didn’t turn people away. Neither do we.” A narrator then proclaims the United Church of Christ’s commitment to Jesus’ extravagant welcome: “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” (The ad can be viewed online at www.stillspeaking.com.)
In focus groups and test market research conducted before the campaign’s national rollout, the UCC found that many people throughout the country feel alienated by churches. The television ad is geared toward those persons who, for whatever reason, have not felt welcomed or comfortable in a church.
“We find it disturbing that the networks in question seem to have no problem exploiting gay persons through mindless comedies or titillating dramas, but when it comes to a church’s loving welcome of committed gay couples, that’s where they draw the line,” says the Rev. Robert Chase, director of the UCC’s communication ministry.
CBS and NBC’s refusal to air the ad “recalls the censorship of the 1950s and 1960s, when television station WLBT in Jackson, Miss., refused to show people of color on TV,” says Ron Buford, coordinator for the United Church of Christ identity campaign. Buford, of African-American heritage, says, “In the 1960s, the issue was the mixing of the races. Today, the issue appears to be sexual orientation. In both cases, it’s about exclusion.”
In 1959, the Rev. Everett C. Parker organized United Church of Christ members to monitor the racist practices of WLBT. Like many southern television stations at the time, WLBT had imposed a news blackout on the growing civil rights movement, pulling the plug on then-attorney Thurgood Marshall. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. implored the UCC to get involved in the media civil rights issues. Parker, founding director of the Office of Communication of the United Church of Christ, organized churches and won in federal court a ruling that the airwaves are public, not private property. That decision ultimately led to an increase in the number of persons of color in television studios and newsrooms. The suit clearly established that television and radio stations, as keepers of the public airwaves, must broadcast in the public interest.
“The consolidation of TV network ownership into the hands of a few executives today puts freedom of speech and freedom of religious expression in jeopardy,” says former FCC Commissioner Gloria Tristani, currently managing director of the UCC’s Office of Communication. “By refusing to air the United Church of Christ’s paid commercial, CBS and NBC are stifling religious expression. They are denying the communities they serve a suitable access to differing ideas and expressions.”
Adds Andrew Schwartzman, president and CEO of the not-for-profit Media Access Project in Washington, D.C., “This is an abuse of the broadcasters’ duty to inform their viewers on issues of importance to the community. After all, these stations don’t mind carrying shocking, attention-getting programming, because they do that every night.”
The United Church of Christ’s national offices — located in Cleveland — speak to, but not for, its nearly 6,000 congregations and 1.3 million members. In the spirit of the denomination’s rich tradition, UCC congregations remain autonomous, but also strongly in covenant with each other and with the denomination’s regional and national bodies.