Q: The conservative Christian group Focus on the Family is sponsoring a pro-life ad, featuring football star Tim Tebow, during Sunday’s Super Bowl. Should CBS show the ad? Should CBS allow other faith-based groups to buy Super Bowl ads promoting their beliefs on social issues? Is a major sporting event, or a TV ad campaign, an appropriate venue for discussing such vital and divisive culture-war issues like abortion?
This question is laboring under a major philosophical misconception that CBS is a “public” sphere in the American discursive space that must abide by certain ethics of fairness and must pursue the public good. If it costs between $2 million to $3 million for 30 seconds to send a message during the Super Bowl, then it is clear that we are talking about an arena that can only be described as an “exclusive sphere”.
Even if CBS allowed both sides of any issue to air their arguments, the matter of the ability of the advocates to pay for exposure remains. Thus if CBS allows all advocacy and public interest messages airtime, only the rich will be able to avail the opportunity.
I would love to use the Super Bowl as an opportunity to recite verse 5:32 from the Qur’an and try and convince millions of Americans that Islam does not condone violence and that the Qur’an deems taking of innocent life as an abomination. This pro-life message could go far in combating Islamophobia, improving U.S.-Muslim relations and perhaps save us from future wars. But alas, even if CBS allows me that I cannot raise the millions necessary (on a side note, fundraising at that level could actually get Muslims in trouble).
The point I am trying to make is, if you have the power (financial or numbers) you have the message. The fact that Focus on Family may influence people during Super Bowl is less relevant because its presence on the messages board itself sends the signal that this idea has power behind it, that it already has momentum.
Should CBS allow Focus on Family to air its message is also a wrong question to ask. The key question is should CBS be allowed to allow or disallow advocacy messages. Should they have the authority to make a value based assessment on which of the many richly endowed messages is worthy of airtime and which is not? I think that given the track record of the corporate sector, it is safer and wiser to assume that they cannot be trusted with this responsibility. Entities for whom the bottom line is the driving force morality and public goods are of secondary significance.
The right to freedom of speech as an important institution in the American democracy is not well served because of the privatization of the public sphere. The inherent tensions between democracy and capitalism — the former seeking to maximize benefit for all, and the latter pursuing profit for some – continue to manifest themselves in many key issues in our society, health care, advocacy, religion and public policy are just some of them.