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The UCC fights back for tolerance — filing FCC license challenges

They won’t take this sitting down.

United Church of Christ files petition with FCC over networks’ refusal of church advertisement

UCC: Ad’s rejection denies ‘full range of religious expression’

UCC campaign site: http://www.accessibleairwaves.org

CLEVELAND — The United Church of Christ today (Dec. 9) is filing two petitions with the Federal Communications Commission, asking that two network owned-and-operated television stations in Miami be denied license renewals for failing to provide viewers “suitable access” to a full array of “social, political, esthetic, moral and other ideas and experiences.”

WFOR-TV (a CBS station) and WJVT-TV (an NBC station) — whose operating licenses are currently up for FCC review — are being challenged because “there is substantial and material question” as to whether the stations’ parent companies, Viacom, Inc., and the General Electric Company, have operated the stations in the public interest, the petitions state.

The action stems from a much-publicized decision by both networks to deny an advertisement that makes clear the church’s welcome of diverse, even marginalized, segments of the population. CBS and NBC have said the all-inclusive ads are “controversial” and, therefore, amount to “issue advocacy,” something the networks have said they do not allow.

In a signed statement that accompanies the petition, the Rev. John H. Thomas, the UCC’s general minister and president, said, “The religious, ethical and moral right of members of UCC churches and other citizens to have access to diverse programming has been harmed by the refusal of NBC and CBS to carry [the ad], as well as by their failure to carry programming reflecting the full range of religious expression in the United States on their networks and on their owned-and-operated stations.”

Similarly signed complaints from a group of UCC members in south Florida make the case that those who live in the network stations’ viewing area are being denied a positive message of inclusion.

“Ensuring that all Americans, especially women and people of color, have the opportunity to be seen and heard in today’s media-saturated culture is vital to free expression,” said the Rev. Robert Chase, director of the UCC’s communication ministry. “It gives voice to God’s rich mosaic and is essential in a full democracy.”

Said Andrew J. Schwartzman, President and CEO of Media Access Project, “Broadcasters agree to serve the needs of the communities where they are licensed in exchange for receiving free use of publicly owned airwaves. That means everyone, not just people their advertisers care about.”

“The viewing public is harmed when powerful networks can label an ad ‘controversial’ and refuse to air it. Repeal of the Fairness Doctrine was supposed to result in the airing of more, not less, ‘controversial’ programming,” said Angela Campbell, Director of Georgetown University Law Center’s Institute for Public Representation. “It is time for the FCC to re-examine whether some sort of public right of access is required under the Communications Act and the First Amendment.”

Ironically — long before the current television ad controversy — the United Church of Christ, through its Office of Communication, Inc. (OC, Inc.), has been at the forefront of media access issues for more than 40 years. During the civil rights era, the UCC was the first voice to demand that those holding FCC licenses and authorizations act on behalf of the public interest and be held accountable as stewards of the public trust.

Only three months ago, on Sept. 1, 2004, the UCC’s Office of Communication, Inc., filed a petition with the FCC to deny license renewals of two television stations serving the Washington, D.C., area for failing to serve the educational needs of children.

“Who would have guessed that it would one day be our voice that was silenced?” Chase said. “When CBS and NBC refused to air our commercial because they considered it ‘too controversial,’ we found ourselves in the very position as other groups for whom we have historically been advocates.”

Gloria Tristani, OC Inc.’s managing director and a former FCC commissioner (1997-2001), said, “NBC and CBS and their stations must be accountable to the communities they are licensed to serve. How can it be in the public interest for television stations to exclude a church’s message of inclusion?”

The FCC filing was done on behalf of the United Church of Christ by lawyers from Media Access Project and the Institute for Public Representation at Georgetown University.

More information about the petition and the campaign can be found at: http://www.AccessibleAirwaves.org

On the web: http://www.ucc.org

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding