Respected journalist Bill Moyers was not exaggerating when he recently told an audience that ‘the very soul of democracy is at stake’ with the increasing concentration of ownership of public media such as radio, newspapers, television and the Internet. United Methodist Communications, responsible for the denomination’s four-year, $20 million advertising campaign, recently engaged in a skirmish over paid speech with Reuters after the international media giant initially refused to place our ads on its giant Times Square electronic billboard. While the church won this engagement over the Times Square billboard, this confrontation with a huge media company shows we are living in dangerous times governed by an evolving social policy that severely limits public discourse.
- United Methodist Communications (UMC) learned an important lesson: Freedom of speech is not guaranteed when corporations are the gatekeepers to the media. Private ownership is trumping the First Amendment. Even if you can pay, unless your message is one of consumption, you have no guarantee your voice will enter the marketplace.
- The story began in September 2003, when UMC was offered reasonably priced advertising space on Reuters’ electronic billboard in New York City’s Times Square during the US Thanksgiving holiday. This was a great opportunity for the church to offer an alternative voice for the millions of shoppers, tourists and workers who would walk past the huge electronic billboards during the holiday period. We had no idea it would propel us into a confrontation with the giant international conglomerate over freedom of speech.
- United Methodist Communications signed a contract and sent payment, with the intention of running an ad from the denomination’s advertising campaign. For the past two and a half years, the United Methodist Church has used radio, television and print to invite people to consider visiting a United Methodist congregation, a campaign co-ordinated by UMCom. The church’s commercials have appeared on broadcast networks such as NBC and CBS, on nearly 20 cable networks, including Fox News Network, TNT, Lifetime and CNN, and on dozens of local television stations across the United States.
- We confidently announced the Reuters billboard advertising purchase to the news media and posted announcements on our Web sites UMC.org and IgnitingMinistry.org. We were ready to be present in Times Square when the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade passed by the board.
- Sudden withdrawal
- Two weeks after these public announcements, we learned that Reuters’ policy prohibited the display of messages from faith-based organisations on the board, a fact that the broker was unaware of when he contracted with UMCom. An executive at the brokering company said he was unsure if the policy was in writing but ‘written or not, that ad is not going on that board.’ We also asked Reuters’ public relations representative for the policy but never received it.
- After a succession of telephone calls between UMCom staff, the broker and Reuters' staff, we were told to remove our announcements and an artist’s illustration of the proposed board from our Web sites.
- With a broken contract, a threat of legal action and denial of an appeal, we were left in an embarrassing situation. The announcement of our plans had generated excitement and widespread support among members of the church. It could easily appear that we had prematurely announced our plans when, in fact, it was the broker who had made the error.
- Our request that Reuters consider the appropriateness of our message, a routine advertising-business practice, was met with a less-than-subtle response from the broker. It would be unwise, he said, for a little church in Nashville that lacked the necessary resources to take on an international media giant like Reuters. Reuters’ public relations representative ended communication with us, saying that any further comment would come from her superiors.
- It was, in the perspectives of legal counsel, Reuters and its broker, a simple breach of contract. After all, they reasoned, Reuters was within its right to decide to whom it would sell billboard space and we should accept a refund and chalk it up to experience. But we thought differently. This clearly arbitrary and discriminatory policy was banning more than a message of the church. The voice of the church was being banned — a matter, from our perspective, of freedom of speech. Remember, we were not asking for special treatment; we were willing to pay as any other advertiser. We believed we were being banned because we are a religious organisation.
- Going public
- Having exhausted constructive deliberations, and seemingly without recourse, we decided to make our case public. As we announced that our message would not appear, we also stated our belief that Reuters’ policy arbitrarily discriminated against religious organisations. We released the story on the Internet through our Web sites and sent a release to the news media. Within minutes, the first inquiries came in, and by the end of the day, reporters from a variety of media around the United States called for interviews.
- On the first night after the update, a local television station in New York covered the story live from Times Square during its prime-time newscast, including a comment by United Methodist Bishop Ernest Lyght of New York. Many articles linked to our Web sites. We created a media package that included streamed video of the banned message, my audio statement asking for fair treatment, our press release and stories written by United Methodist News Service.
- For the next week, as the story continued to unfold, we held to our original premise. It seemed to me, however, as I read the coverage, Reuters’ explanations of its policy seemed to evolve. Beginning with a Reuters’ spokesperson’s statement that, in addition to corporate policy, its lease prevented religious advertising, the organisation’s messages went first to citing a longstanding prohibition against messages with religious, political and sexual content, and then to a claim that the restriction banned religious, political, sexual, libellous or slanderous content.
- When a Reuters' spokesperson mentioned pornographic content, probably unintentionally putting it in the same class of speech as political and religious messages, support from within and outside the denomination picked up. Soon, the heads of several denominational communications agencies issued a joint statement criticising Reuters’ position. Their statement added a new twist and moved the story along.
- By the end of the first week, the story began to appear in media beyond the United States. Around this time, Reuters offered its most cogent rationale for its policy, saying that, as an independent news organisation, it sought to distance itself from identification with religious organisations. I received a call from an executive in Reuters’ London headquarters, informing me that Richard H. Plocer, Reuters’ chief executive, who had been travelling, was reviewing the situation.
- A subsequent letter from Plocer indicated that he concurred that we should be allowed access to the Reuters board. He also wrote that he was instructing staff to review the policy to allow such messages and to renegotiate its lease. He assured us we would be welcome on the board. It was a gracious letter and it revealed, in my opinion, the fact that Reuters took our complaint seriously and gave it fair consideration. We have publicly commended Reuters for listening to us and reversing its policy.
- Disclaimer imposed
- If would be nice if that were the end of the story, but it isn’t. After we formatted our message for the board, we learned of a new stipulation, requiring us to run a continuous disclaimer, indicating our message’s status as a paid announcement. Despite our challenges to this stipulation, Reuters determined the position and duration of the disclaimer, as well as the size of the typeface. To my knowledge, no other advertiser is required to do this.
- This stipulation makes it seem as though Reuters doubts the perceptive abilities of its New York viewers. If they are sophisticated enough to understand, without the use of a disclaimer, that Reuters does not endorse the beer advertised on their board, surely they are perceptive enough to understand that messages from the church are not automatically from Reuters. And so, we are singled out once again for special treatment.
- Believing that this says more about Reuters than it does about our message, we agreed to the disclaimer. But it raises even more serious questions about corporate control of media in public spaces and on public airwaves. Our spat with Reuters has led me to understand this up close. The fact is, under corporate control of the media, censorship by exclusion is real and those who are excluded have neither the right to appeal, nor due process procedures. This makes me appreciate even more the action by Reuter’s CEO, Mr. Plocer. It points out that this issue is not about good people or bad people in positions of corporate leadership, but it is about bad social policy.
- Bad social policy turns over control of communication in public spaces and on public airwaves to private hands, narrowing the range of public discourse, eliminating important voices and allowing only commercial speech that promotes consumption. And that is exactly what we in the United States have allowed to happen for the past 20 years. I am much more concerned about creating social policy that takes the guarantee of freedom of speech seriously in public media and gives voice to widely different groups in the society.
- Our experience with Reuters has sharpened focus on the challenges we face as Christian communicators in the current environment. First, it’s important that the church maintains a current, prominent presence in major media. The messages of hope, healing and reconciliation the church seeks to make available are important antidotes to the fear, divisiveness and consumption that bombard us daily.
- Second, we must do a better job of interpreting to our audiences and church members the importance of global communications issues. We must emphasise the profound importance of communications policy on human freedom and democratic societies.
- Third, we must fight for comprehensive access to community-based local content. The creation of a global media system favourable only to commercial speech is already well under way. Most of us in the not-for-profit sector find it already too costly to compete in the commercial marketplace. Thus, media access driven by economics, and not by public interest, is narrowing the public dialogue.
- Fourth, we must challenge cross- and consolidated ownership of various media by conglomerates as bad social policy because it results in less local input, more homogenised content and media less responsive to community needs.
- Fifth, we must continue to fight for a non-commercial media system that provides access to the wide range of community groups, religious organisations and other non-profit groups working for a more nurturing and caring society. And we must work for more open access to the media for marginalised groups that lack the economic resources to tell their own stories.
- United Methodist Communications’ challenge to Reuters' policy was more important than it first appeared. Fundamentally, we are fighting for the right to be heard in an environment in which non-commercial voices have been closed out. As surely as the media are in danger of governmental control, they are also in danger of concentrated control in fewer corporate hands. It is an urgent concern that the church defends open public spaces and media policies that ensure the media are used as tools in the democratic process. This is vital to an open, democratic society.
Larry Hollon is General Secretary of United Methodist Communications, the communications agency of The United Methodist Church, based in Nashville, Tennessee. Before coming to UMCom he worked as an independent video producer concentrating on issues of poverty and human development. He is former Communications Director for Church World Service. He has also worked in commercial radio and television as a journalist and commentator.