November 9, 2005
Some Vices Banned from the Airwaves

By Froma Harrop

"Good Night, 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 him.

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 tobacco ads.)

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 Harbor."

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 anyone else?

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 ads.

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 Scotch.

Copyright 2005 Creators Syndicate

Froma Harrop

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