- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 30, 2005

The ongoing controversy between the media and religion heated up this month with Rolling Stone’s initial rejection of an ad for a new version of the Bible.

The decision was reversed, and the ad will run next month, but religion-based advertising is becoming an increasingly heated issue as morals and ethics move to the forefront of the political debate.

The media, whether broadcast or print, have the right to turn down ads, but religious organizations and church groups say that right is a form of censorship. They say media must act in the public’s interest and not dictate what can or cannot be seen and heard.

“We believe in the media — where consumers are battered with thousands and thousands of images — organizations like the church should have an equal right to offer alternative messaging,” said Stephen Drachler, executive director of public information at United Methodist Communications. “It’s commercial censorship.”

Reuters refused to air a United Methodist Church ad on its 7,000-square-foot electronic billboard system in Times Square in 2003, but changed its mind just weeks later. The ad ran 10 times from Nov. 17 to Nov. 30. It also appeared on 17 national cable and broadcast networks earlier that fall.

The Reuters incident “certainly heightened our awareness that the idea of commercial censorship needs to be confronted and addressed,” Mr. Drachler said.

Print and broadcast media companies do not have to give a reason for their decisions.

“Media has the general right to reject ads,” said Gene Policinski, executive director of Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Center. “They are free to make the decisions they wish.”

The United Church of Christ (UCC) made news when its ad was rejected by NBC and CBS last month. The commercial showed a beefy bouncer turning people, including minorities and a presumed homosexual couple, away from an unnamed church. The ad was accepted by Fox and several cable networks.

NBC said the ad was “too controversial” and the “issue of controversy stemmed from the ad’s suggestion that other religions are not open to all people for a variety of reasons.”

CBS said it doesn’t accept advertising that touches on or takes the “position on one side of a current controversial issue of public importance,” referring to the homosexual couple in the ad. At the time, the Bush administration had proposed a constitutional amendment to “define marriage as a union between a man and a woman,” the network said in its explanation to the UCC.

Church officials say the ad was not about homosexual “marriage,” but rather about Jesus welcoming people.

“The networks should not be able to dictate to religious groups what their message is,” said Barb Powell, a spokeswoman for the United Church of Christ. “The religious fabric in this country is diverse. We all have the equal right to be heard.”

CBS and NBC did accept a second ad from the UCC that ran at the end of December.

Media companies are “all too willing to promulgate messages laced with sexual innuendo, greed, violence and the politics of personal destruction, but a message of openness and welcome that merely says ‘church doors are open to all’ is being silenced as too controversial,” according to the communication commission of the National Council of Churches USA.

This has been an ongoing battle, says John Watson, assistant professor of journalism at American University.

The fight has received even more attention lately because of the country’s political separation between blue Democratic states and red Republican states.

“It has become more visible because it’s part of this ongoing war of worlds,” Mr. Watson said.

ABC has a blanket policy not to accept any religious advertising.

CBS says it’s not against religious advertising per se, but rather “advocacy advertising.”

The policy, established decades ago, was set up to ensure the “deep pockets” on one side of an issue would not control a debate, said Dana McClintock, senior vice president of communications for CBS.

NBC’s policy is not to accept ads that deal with public controversy.

“We don’t want a 30-second ad to be the way an issue of public controversy is dealt with,” said Shannon Jacobs, an NBC spokeswoman.

Mr. Watson says media companies should have a policy in which they accept every ad unless it is obscene. That policy wouldn’t mean they endorse or condone the message or the product, but rather they “believe in the marketplace of ideas … and accept competing ideas,” he said.

The battle between media and religion have beaten some media executives down as they are forced to reverse their rejections, including the most recent action by Rolling Stone.

The pop culture magazine rejected an ad for Today’s New International Version Bible earlier this month, saying it doesn’t publish religious advertising, but the company changed its mind last week after negative publicity.

It’s no surprise that media executives have reversed their decision to run ads that they first deemed inappropriate.

“The controversy could cost them even more money,” Mr. Watson said. “All the attention will cause them to buckle.”

Wenner Media, Rolling Stone’s parent, says a miscommunication led to the refusal of the ad in the first place.

The controversy was good news for Zondervan, the Grand Rapids, Mich., company that publishes the Bible.

“As a result of the Rolling Stone rejection, we’ve received more than 50 phone calls from additional media who would love to accept our ads,” said Doug Lockhart, executive vice president of marketing for Zondervan.

The ad, which will run in Rolling Stone next month, has been accepted by many different publications and Web sites, such as Modern Bride, the Onion, AOL.com and MTV.com.

Mr. Drachler says ultimately it’s a business decision for the media company.

“Those who depend on advertising are looking for revenue,” he said. “It always comes down to the bottom line in the end.”

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