A super ad dispute

The 30-second Tim Tebow advertisement that’s scheduled to air during this Sunday’s Super Bowl probably won’t change many minds on the issue of abortion. Opinions on that highly contentious issue have been rigidly set for some time, with pro-choice advocates on one side, pro-life proponents on the other, and the large majority of Americans holding views somewhere between the two extremes.

Rather that reopen the discussion about abortion, the ad with Tebow and his mother — sponsored by the Colorado Springs based Focus on the Family — has focused public debate on another issue: What sort of commercials are appropriate for a network to accept to air during what is among the most-watched television programs of the year?

From our point of view, strongly supportive of free-speech rights as we are, CBS is doing the right thing in running the Tebow ad.

Based on press reports about the commercial, the ad simply discusses the fact that Tebow’s mother was counseled to have an abortion when she was pregnant with Tim because she had suffered an illness that doctors believed had severely injured the baby she was carrying. Instead, she chose to give birth and raised an intelligent, athletically gifted son. The message is said to celebrate life. The ad reportedly doesn’t belittle those who support abortion.

But free-speech rights are somewhat restricted for a private business that uses the public airways to make its money. Although the old Fairness Doctrine isn’t in effect as it was a few decades ago, broadcasters such as CBS still are expected to be balanced in their presentation of controversial issues. And it’s in that regard that CBS has received the most criticism. Several writers and bloggers have noted that the network has in the past refused ads in which the sponsor endorsed homosexuality. But there’s no indication that CBS rejected an advertisement that supported abortion.

Since the network has apparently decided to reverse previous policy and allow issue advertising through the Tebow spot, it needs to release guidelines explaining what sort of issue ads it will allow — and what it will reject.

Meanwhile, Tebow and his supporters will quickly realize that making even bland statements in such an extremely public forum opens one up for all manner of criticism and fact-checking. Already, several news outlets are raising questions about the Tebow story because the family was reportedly living in the Phillipines, doing missionary work, when Tim’s mother became pregnant with him. The problem, say the skeptics, is that abortion has been illegal in the Phillipines since the 1930s and punishable by up to six years in prison. Therefore, they say, it’s unlikely that doctors there would have advised her to have an abortion.

Undoubtedly, more information will come out about this as the Super Bowl approaches, and after the ad is broadcast. That’s what happens with free speech. One side may make its pitch, but the other side is free to challenge, question and argue about what’s wrong with that pitch. And the public is the winner.


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