BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Here's an ad that was scheduled to run during CNN's coverage of the State of the Union Address, but you didn't see it. [SEVERAL SPEAK AT ONCE, OVERLAPPING AUDIO]
MAN: The war against Iraq is the most irrational thing that...
WOMAN: It's a violation of international law...
MAN: ... against the war because...
MAN: ... I don't believe that...
WOMAN: Where's the proof?
MAN: ... not willing to risk my life for oil.
WOMAN: ...because it will destabilize the whole...
MAN: ... the president thinks that a war can make us safer...
WOMAN: ...not in the best interests of the United States...
MAN: ...self-appointed group of mercenaries--
WOMAN: ...is pursuing a personal agenda...
WOMAN: ...I think that we've got enough problems here...
MAN: ...for a partisan political...
WOMAN: ...we could use those billions of dollars here...
SEVERAL SPEAK AT ONCE: No - War -- Yes - Peace. No - War -- Yes - Peace.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You didn't see it because Comcast -- the biggest cable company in the nation -- decided at the last minute not to air it! This outraged the anti-war group that created and paid for the ad and alarmed many others who are concerned about the impact of media consolidation in the marketplace of ideas. Joining us once again is Alicia Mundy, senior editor for Cable World Magazine. Alicia, welcome back!
ALICIA MUNDY: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So this particular anti-war ad that Comcast declined to run had a couple of offending statements, reports have said, that Comcast in particular objected to.
ALICIA MUNDY: Comcast put out a statement saying they didn't want to run any spot where they couldn't substantiate all the claims it made. The statements they have a problem with in this ad are ordinary citizens in Princeton, New Jersey being quoted. One of them says "I think the war is a violation of international law." And the other is the former mayor of Princeton Township referring to the George Bush team as "a self-appointed group of mercenaries."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now Comcast has aired several anti-war ads in the Washington, DC area in the past including I guess a recent remake of the 1963 Daisy ad -if you remember during the Johnson for president campaign.
ALICIA MUNDY: They have run some of them. Yes, they have.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what do you think of the charge by the peace groups that Comcast has basically folded in order to curry favor with the Bush administration?
ALICIA MUNDY: I think this ad may be just slightly more hard-hitting in some senses than the other anti-war ads because it is largely just citizens looking right at the camera -- and then at the end of it the citizens faces form a flag, making a statement about patriotism. And I think the charge of the peace group is that this was withheld the night of the State of the Union Address because Comcast didn't want to embarrass the president of the United States because Comcast has a lot of issues right now before the federal government. And Comcast may have had real reasons for rejecting this ad, but frankly they didn't cover themselves in glory the way they did it. Normally in political ads and issue ads if a television station rejects the ad-- they'll give the people who made the ad a chance to edit out offending material -- if it's a visual or if it's a statement. That didn't happen in this case. The peace group was told the morning of January 28th that the ad wasn't going to run. They didn't get an offer at that time to go and edit the ad. The offer only came in Thursday, which was two days after the State of the Union Address.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so they didn't get a fair shot to get that message out there at precisely the time when they wanted people to see it.
ALICIA MUNDY: That's right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well what's your opinion? You have seen a lot of ads over the years. Did this seem to cross some line, or do you think there's some extraordinary sensitivity that could arouse legitimate suspicions?
ALICIA MUNDY: I didn't see anything major that crossed the line. I mean for somebody to say it's a violation of international law -- excuse me, but the last time I looked I think they were debating that in front of the United Nations. I think the reference to the "self-appointed group of mercenaries" -- that was a direct shot at George Bush's White House, and I suspect that Comcast and its president, Brian Roberts, were just a little bit nervous. They thought my God, that's a shot at George Bush and we don't want to be ticking off the president -- because how do you mean you can substantiate that line or not substantiate that line?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It's just an insult.
ALICIA MUNDY: It's just an insult! You know, normally that's free speech -- protected speech, rather. And it's an ad! It's an issue ad! I, I just -- I don't know what they were thinking with that except I, I suspect that it was easier for them, it was a cheap buy -- it was only 5,000 -- it was easier for them just to reject the ad and figure what the heck -they'll just go away. I don't think they expected to wake up and see it in the Washington Post.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Comcast is the biggest cable company. It does supply 70 percent of the audience in the top 20 markets. There are a number of citizens groups that say, you know, what happened with Comcast in this ad is a direct result of media conglomeration. How do they relate?
ALICIA MUNDY: Well, I think they relate because media conglomeration doesn't destroy the media overnight. Nobody's going to suddenly come in and shut down the newspapers and shut down the news stations. But they're worried about the incrementalism, and this is a sort of an example of incrementalism. It starts with people not knowing what they've missed. You don't know you didn't see this ad, and little by little there are things that just don't show up on the airwaves that you don't even know what you're not seeing! Until all of a sudden there's only one side of the issue being presented, and that's why people are worried. They don't want it to start here with this little ad.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And it's easy for critics to point to the fact that Comcast could easily be seen as beholden to the Bush administration because of a recent merger that was very much in its favor.
ALICIA MUNDY: Comcast just literally within the past few weeks got its merger with AT&T Broadband Cable Company approved -- a merger that a number of groups fought on the grounds that it would have too much power. And it has other issues pending now in front of the government. I think there's some investigations of its pricing strategy. So it's easy for critics to say that Comcast did this because it wanted to curry favor with the people on high. And you don't want that appearance! You know? You not only don't want that in fact -- you don't want that appearance! You can't afford it in a democracy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I've read that there are a number of other anti-war ads in the works and people are going to try and get them on the air. Do you think they'll meet the same resistance? Or has there been enough of a flap over this Comcast incident to help those ads reach air?
ALICIA MUNDY: I've talked to staffers up on the Senate and at the FCC, and although there's nothing illegal about what Comcast did, there's some talk among people on the hill about holding some hearings about the impact of big media on the ability to stifle certain issue ads and other kinds of political ads.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay. Thank you very much.
ALICIA MUNDY: Thank you!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Alicia Mundy is senior editor of Cable World Magazine.