November 9, 2005
Some Vices Banned from the Airwaves
and Good Luck" is a movie tribute to CBS news legend Edward
R. Murrow. It's about journalists in the 1950s who were not afraid
of smoking, drinking or Joe McCarthy. The red-baiter is no longer
with us, and other than stomping on his memory, TV is done with
But what about the
smoking and the drinking? CBS today is more likely to pay an hour's
homage to the demented commie hunter than to air a 30-second ad
for Johnnie Walker Scotch, which it is allowed to do. (The 1965
Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act still prohibits
A few questions arise.
For starters, why do network TV and the federal government pick
on some vices and not on others? Gambling used to be a vice, and
in many minds still is. Yet the airwaves carry lots of ads for
state lotteries and commercial casinos. TV even offers live coverage
of the Powerball picks -- a state-run version of what mugs in
the '50s called a "numbers racket."
Tobacco and booze
get censored because the censors have changed. They have long
been targets of the puritanical right. But starting in the '60s,
nanny-state liberals joined the fight, purportedly for public
health reasons. That means no is one left to defend the right
to use or advertise these legal products -- other than a ragtag
gang of libertarians and First Amendment freaks.
The activists have
gone beyond opposing ads for such products. They now protest even
the portrayal of them. Commercial Alert, a group based in Portland,
Ore., has called on schools to ban advertisements of movies that
show people smoking. The ads appear on Channel One TV programs
now seen in many schools.
As a social issue,
this is a big onion to peel. First off, the showing of commercial
television in classrooms probably does students more harm than
would seeing their teacher light up. But once you get past that,
you note that the ads Commercial Alert wants banned don't show
smoking. They only refer to movies that do. The damned include
"Mr. Deeds," "Charlie's Angels" and "Pearl
Many of the movies
display murder, mayhem and the horrors of war. They include gross
sexual references and disgusting manners. But the appearance of
a smoker is deemed beyond the pale. (Actually, movie critics have
complained that "Pearl Harbor" has far less smoking
than would have been expected among soldiers in 1941.) Given the
smoky haze that hovers over "Good Night, and Good Luck,"
Commercial Alert would give the film a far lower classroom rating
than "Sex and the City."
That's a shame, because
the movie covers an important piece of American history. That
journalists back then weren't much into self-preservation shouldn't
detract from their accomplishments. And, if at the end of the
day, they calm themselves with a belt of Scotch, what's that to
Speaking of self-preservation,
it seems odd that the networks don't crusade for the right to
run ads for legal products. The states have the power to prohibit
the sale of cigarettes --- or for that matter, alcohol. None do
so, because they tax these products like crazy and want the revenues.
It seems hypocritical to deny broadcasters the revenue from their
In 1991, the Distilled
Liquor Council of the United States lifted its members' voluntary
ban on TV ads. And still the big-four television networks would
not air them. Where's the courage? In December 2001, NBC ventured
forth and accepted liquor ads (attached to cautionary messages).
Four months later, it backed down.
Over at satellite
radio, meanwhile, executives breathe free. XM Satellite Radio
now runs ads for Jack Daniel's whiskey. Sirius Satellite Radio
will soon be airing jingles for Tanqueray gin, as well as Howard
Stern saying gross things that the Federal Communications Commission
wouldn't allow on broadcast media.
One can imagine the
ghost of Edward R. Murrow, cigarette in hand, urging the network
executives to demand their First Amendment right to free speech,
which should include running advertisements for Marlboros. Sadly,
the controversial Murrow, were he alive today, would probably
have been exiled to satellite radio, along with the ads for his
2005 Creators Syndicate