In the television business, there is nothing particularly unusual about a station's refusal to air an advertisement. It happens more often than you think. In the Twin Cities market, for instance, sales managers routinely reject spots for escort services, off-shore gambling operations, and weight-loss products that make unverifiable claims. Of course, stations tend to be especially cautious about airing anything that might run afoul of Federal Communications Commission rules.
There are other subsets of rejected ads, too. Animal rights organizations such as PETA have a notoriously difficult time buying airtime because station managers don't want to field irate calls from nauseated viewers--or, worse yet, cause said viewers to lunge for the remote. And, most importantly, no TV executive wants to offend the sensibilities of the most important constituent: major advertisers.
A few years ago, activist/author Arianna Huffington learned that lesson after launching the Detroit Project, a media campaign that suggested drivers of gas-guzzling SUVs were supporting terrorism. Considering the importance of auto advertising, it was no great surprise that Huffington was unable to convince major-market stations to air her spots.
But last week, one local station--KSTP-TV (Channel 5)--rejected an advertisement for a more novel reason: the ad attacked "the media" in a manner that station management regarded as untrue. The spot in question--bankrolled by the conservative advocacy group Progress for America--featured testimonials from Minnesota veterans defending U.S. war policy in Iraq interspersed with images of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The overall sentiment did not bother KSTP general manager Rob Hubbard. In Hubbard's view, the problem lay in the veracity of two specific claims that were embedded in the ad: "That the media only reports the bad news" and "you would never know it from the news reports, but the enemy in Iraq is al Qaeda."
That, says Hubbard, is plainly false. He points out that both KSTP and ABC, its parent network, have reported on the Iraqi elections, progress concerning reconstruction of the country, and the reopening of its schools--all of which qualifies as "good" news. "When someone is watching our news, we're 'the media.'" Hubbard explains. "We know that [the claim in the advertisement] is inaccurate as it relates to us."
Last week, several partisan bloggers complained mightily about KSTP's "censorship" of Minnesota soldiers. But according to Hubbard, KSTP received few calls about the decision, with sentiments split roughly down the middle.
While KSTP was alone in refusing to run the "Midwest Heroes" spot, both KARE (Channel 11) and WCCO (Channel 4) aired news stories about the ad. In other words, they chose to take both the beating and the money. And make no mistake: There was plenty of money to be had. While Progress for America did not return City Pages' calls, figures extrapolated from a report in the Star Tribune suggest the total market buy for the campaign was in the neighborhood of $600,000.
In a written policy statement, Ed Piette, WCCO general manager and vice president, argued that decisions whether to run ads are judgment calls, but that such issue ads are part of the "fabric of democracy." At the same time, he vowed that veteran political reporter Pat Kessler would subject such spots to weekly "Reality Checks."
Given the ad's heavy rotation, though, viewers could expect to see it a lot more often than Pat Kessler's single report. As a "high frequency buy," the spot was likely to be seen 10 or so times by the typical couch potato. Bill Hillsman, the Minnesota political ad guru best known for his work on the Jesse Ventura and Paul Wellstone campaigns, says that exceeds the typical rollout for a new Hollywood movie. For that reason alone, he was surprised to learn that KSTP had rejected it. Then there is the matter of KSTP's reputation as a relatively conservative outlet. (The station is owned by the Hubbard family, which has a long track record of supporting Republican causes and candidates.)
"What you have here, for lack of a better term, is a pissing match between Progress for America and the news media," Hillsman observes. "This is an aggressive push back and I think it's very interesting that a station would say, 'We have enough faith in our news product and our reporting to say that ad is demonstrably wrong and we're not going to air something slanders our station.'"
Hillsman makes this point with a certain amount of admiration. "You rarely see the media stand up for itself so vociferously," he says. "So I have to give KSTP some credit. They're saying, Wait a minute. We do a pretty good job of reporting the news. We think the claim in this ad is false, and we're not going to put it on the air and tell our viewers that we do a lousy job of reporting the news. And that it is absurd for Progress for America to expect us to."
If nothing else, the "Midwest Heroes" ad campaign illustrates the nation's drift into a culture of perpetual campaigning. Independent expenditure groups such as Progress for America are legally barred from coordinating their efforts with political campaigns. But, as a matter of practical strategy, they fill the role of frontline soldiers, pouring money into political fights before the candidates air their own ads. Progress for America, Hillsman points out, was responsible for the influential spots depicting John Kerry as a flip-flopping windsurfer; that same theme was later put to use by the Bush-Cheney campaign and helped defined Kerry's image in the minds of many voters.