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I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Government pressure on networks is a tactic pioneered by the GOP

(updated below)

Bush supporters have spent the last several days expressing all sorts of shock and outrage that Democratic Senators would write to Disney to protest Path to 9/11 and insinuate that Disney's decision to allow ABC to be used as a partisan propaganda channel is inconsistent with Disney's obligations which are intrinsic to its right to use the public airways. Hugh Hewitt, for instance, proclaimed that Democrats have "reached a new basement," and solemnly frets that he "didn't think such a reprehensible action was possible in the era of robust First Amendment protections."

Perhaps the Democrats who sent the letter were following the example set by Republican Congressman Eric Cantor of Virginia, who wrote a substantively indistinguishable letter (.pdf) on October 23, 2003 to CBS Chairman Les Moonves -- on his official Congressional letterhead -- demanding that the script of The Reagans meet his approval (emphasis added):

Based on initial media reports, I have serious concerns about "The Reagans" . . . I want to be assured that it is not, as the New York Times reported yesterday, "deconstruction of Reagan's presidency shot through a liberal lens, exaggerating his foibles and giving short shrift to his accomplishments" . . .

CBS, as one of the most watched and respected American television networks, has a duty to its audience, sponsors and history to create an accurate and fair biography of the Reagans. . . .

As the President and CEO, you are responsible for the message promoted by CBS through the programs it airs. I hope that the final cut of "The Reagans" is an accurate and fair portrayal of an immensely popular and important presidency. I look forward to your response on this urgent issue.

And, of course, Republican efforts to demand that CBS cancel -- not change or alter, but cancel -- The Reagans was led not by private citizen groups or concerned bloggers, but by Ed Gillespie, in his official capacity as the Chairman of the Republican National Committee, at a time when that party controlled the entire executive branch and both houses of Congress. Gillespie filed a complaint with CBS officially on behalf of the RNC, and then went all over television objecting to the content of CBS' broadcast.

Objections directed to CBS came from this Republican Congressman and the RNC at exactly the time when CBS' parent company, Viacom, had critical matters pending before both the Republican-controlled Congress and executive agencies such as the FCC:

Moonves's no-go decision comes as CBS and its parent Viacom are fighting congressional legislation that would reverse newly relaxed FCC limits on national TV ownership. If CBS loses, the company would be forced to sell a couple of TV stations it very much wants to keep. The company also owes no small amount of gratitude to the FCC for last week's approval of a DTV antipiracy measure.

Even the Fox News story included the obvious observation:

Showtime and CBS are both owned by Viacom, which is anxiously awaiting federal action on rules to restrict ownership of local TV stations. Failure to enact such changes could cost Viacom millions of dollars, said Jeff Chester, head of the Center for Digital Democracy, a communications lobbying group.

Viacom needs help from Republicans in the White House and Congress who might not like seeing Reagan portrayed negatively, Chester said. "They made a business decision," he said. "In doing so, they clearly caved in to the political pressure."It's not likely CBS faced much pressure from advertisers, said Brad Adgate, analyst for the ad-buying firm Horizon Media. Some advertisers might have been scared by the controversy, but many would have been attracted by the prospect of big ratings, he said.

Does one really need to wonder whether CBS understood the intended impact of the message from a Republican Congressman and the Chairman of the political party on whose fortunes it depended? As Broadcasting & Cable put it:

The attacks from political leaders, including Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie, caused many to question whether CBS faced an implied threat of government retribution unless it axed the show. If so, such a cave-in carries troubling implications for programmers hoping to air controversial takes on highly charged political issues.

Once they capitulated, Viacom was duly patted on the head by Rep. Cantor, as USA Today reported:

Conservatives hailed the success of furious lobbying led by Republican Party chairman Ed Gillespie. "This reminds us all that the American people have a strong voice in deciding what is fair and appropriate," Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., said.

The rationale which Democrats are using now -- that networks hold a public trust which imposes a particular obligation to be netural -- is exactly the rationale Moonves used at the time to explain CBS's decision to transfer The Reagans to Showtime:

As a broadcast network, we feel [CBS is] a public trust," the New Haven Register reported Moonves telling Yale students last Wednesday. "We have a news division. We have to be fair in what we show, and a pay-cable network can be a little more biased in what they show. It can be an opinion piece. We can't do that.

Personally, I am not in favor of -- in fact, I strongly oppose -- Democratic political officials threatening ABC (although, as Greg Sargent points out, it is hardly clear, to put it mildly, that they did so in that letter). I think pressure on and protests against ABC over this mini-series ought to come from the public, not from the government or political officials.

But Republicans are in no position to voice that complaint or to pretend that they oppose government pressure on a television network with regard to the political content of broadcasting, given that their successful effort to force CBS to cancel The Reagans was led by the Chairman of the Republican Party and by a Republican Congressman -- not when, as is the case now for Democrats, they were in the minority, but instead, when they controlled the entire federal government (as they still do).

UPDATE: This radio interview from Friday of Ed Gillespie by Mike Gallagher is hilarious and illustrates the point perfectly. Gallagher continuously expresses outrage over what he calls Democratic efforts to "censor" ABC, and he keeps trying to get Gillespie to join with him in his righteous condemnation. But Gillespie, who was on the show in order to promote his new book, can't do so, because he exerted exactly that pressure on CBS when he was the RNC Chairman. Gillespie keeps trying to change the subject by spouting RNC talking points about Democrats' "weakness in the War on Terror," but Gallagher just keeps ranting on about how outrageous it is that politicians in Washington would try to pressure a television network over the content of their programming.

UPDATE II: A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the absurd though relentless dynamic where every political event is described by Republican hacks and then by pseudo-independent "pundits" as being good for Republicans no matter the outcome: "One of the important points you learn from listening to political pundits is that every event and every controversy is always good for the Republicans."

Today, Instapundit posted about the Path to 9/11 controversy and announced that he "agree[s] with this comment" from Ann Althouse: "This firestorm is a lose-lose for Dems." So, ABC broadcasts a film produced by right-wing ideologues which contains admittedly fictitious scenes featuring Clinton administration officials regarding who is to blame for the 9/11 attacks, and when Democrats object, it is -- all together now -- a "lose-lose for Dems." What isn't a "lose-lose for Dems"?

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