The Superbowl, Abortion, and Corporate Responsibility

This story brings together Americans’ two ‘favourite’ battles. One, an annual epic battle between opposing sports teams, carried out on the gridiron, namely The Superbowl. The other, a never-ending battle between opposing moral points of view, carried out in seemingly every nook and cranny of American life, namely the abortion debate. Add to that a debate over corporate responsibility and a debate over free speech, and it’s not hard to see why sparks are flying.

(That much is cultural anthropology for me. I’m a Canadian. Our “Superbowl” is called the “Stanley Cup,” and it’s a hockey game not a football game. And abortion has not been the subject of significant debate in Canada since 1988.)

So, here are the basics of the current story: CBS, the tv network airing the Superbowl today, has agreed to air an ad by conservative Christian group, Focus on the Family. It’s a pro-life/anti-abortion ad featuring Florida Gators quarterback Tim Tebow and his mom. Though the full ad has not been seen publicly yet, the gist of it apparently is a claim that Tebow’s mom, Pam, had, while pregnant with Tim, refused medical advice that she have an abortion. The result of her refusal is the man we know today as Tebow, a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback. That would be just another little human-interest story, if it weren’t for the way Americans are deeply, bitterly, divided over abortion.

(You can get more details here, from The 5th Down, the NY Times’ NFL Blog.)

The question being debated: should CBS be airing such a controversial ad during the Superbowl? Within broad limits, networks can pretty much air whatever they want: if CBS wants to air controversial ads, it’s within its rights to do so. Heck, if it wants to adopt a pro-life/anti-abortion editorial view, it can do that two.

But two issues complicate the matter:

1) In recent years (?) CBS has had a policy of not airing controversial ads during the Superbowl. Why the exception? Now, CBS is of course free to change its policy. There’s been a suggestion that the economic downturn has prompted the network to be a little more daring. But that argument will only work if other, equally controversial ads are allowed in the future, from a range of moral-and-political points of view. Failing that, CBS would become the network that allows controversial ads only representing certain points of view. It’s hard to judge which way CBS is going, based on a single ad. In other words, based just on the Superbowl, CBS’s new strategy might be “allow controversial ads” or it might be “allow conservative Christian ads.” Time will tell.

2) Questions have arisen about the accuracy of the claims being made in the ad. Tebow was born in the Philippines. Abortion was entirely illegal in the Philippines then, as it is now. So, the claim that Tebow’s mom was advised to have an abortion is a claim that her physicians counselled her to break the law (and offered to break it themselves, too). The illegality angle means that a) the story is less likely to be true (though not obviously false) and that b) the story effectively accuses physicians of criminal behaviour. The question then becomes: should CBS care? It’s probably not plausible to say that a broadcaster is morally responsible for the veracity of every claim made in any commercial it airs. But then again, this isn’t just “any commercial.”

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(Note: if you want to post comments, please stay on-topic. The topic is corporate responsibility. If you want to debate abortion itself, there are lots of other places to do that. Exceedingly inflammatory comments will not be approved. Thanks.)

7 comments so far

  1. DarronS on

    Mrs. Tebow could have returned to the United States for the abortion, negating your argument #2. This ad could still be a total fabrication, but your objection is easily refuted

  2. Chris MacDonald on

    Darren:

    Yes, that’s why I said “it’s not obviously false.” We don’t know the details.

    (And for the record it’s not *my* objection. Others raised it. I’m reporting it.)

    The question is whether CBS should care.

    Chris.

  3. Wayne Norman on

    In the end, the ad turned out to be pretty tame, and the language fairly coded. Without knowing who sponsored it — and their name appears on the screen at the end — it’s hard to imagine that most viewers would have realized what it was supposed to be about.

  4. Bob Ryan on

    Chris, Good job on your “stay tuned” message regarding CBS stance on advocacy messages.

    There’s yet another corporation involved here, too, and that is the National Organization for Women. Please see my post at http://swimstartingwithme.blogspot.com/2010/01/on-ethics-of-advocacy-advertising.html

  5. Tom Snell on

    Since they refused to air an ad for a gay dating service, it would appear that they may be leaning towards a strategy that allows ads that are in line with conservative Christian values.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/02/07/wanda-sykes-takes-on-cbss_n_452473.html

  6. Megan Schmit on

    The focus is not on Corporate Responsibility…and it’s a shame. Not even a month has passed since Citizens United, and we (society) have already turned our attention away from the true issue that we can see again with the Tebow ad.

    CBS was Viacom until 2005, the 2nd largest entertainment company in the world…and the company decided to split itself into two divisions…Viacom with Paramount Pictures & CBS Corporation with **drum roll please** Time Warner aka “The CW” + Showtime + Viacom Parks… okay the picture I’m trying to paint: CORPORATION.

    Now, a company with the market share and impact such as CBS doesn’t need to wait for an election to advocate it’s position…it can simply choose to run Ads that reach roughly 93% of the population that clearly voice the company’s political agenda, and not air the competition…

    I’m NOT saying this is what CBS is doing/did, but I feel that we need to pay attention to the real issue…and we can’t choose to analyze constitutionality regarding Citizens United and then completely ignore parallel principles in question.

    Example: In 1995 CBS refused to air a 60-minutes special with a Tobacco Tycoon… so the problem again is the corporate responsibility to provide JOURNALISM on News stations that isn’t bias, because our perception of the world is completely dependent upon the media CORPORATIONS in our country.

    Chris, your article hits the heart of the beast that no one can see because now we’re arguing about Abortion Rights & dancing around what I thought would be blindingly obvious due to the uproar of Jan. 21st Supreme Court Ruling.

    To me, this is even more pressing because it’s balancing on the edge between unethical/irresponsible behavior & illegal…

    I think it’s about time we all find out just how distorted our perception of the world is based on our blind faith in honest media. Anyone remember Dan Rather?

  7. Jack Marshall on

    Chris: Of course CBS should care: if the ad is false, CBS shouldn’t run it. On the other hand, there is no good reason to doubt the veracity of the Tebows. CBS would be responsible to require some verification—it would also be responsible to trust them, under the circumstances.

    The interesting part is that the real ad didn’t even tell the Tebows’ story, and the publicity for the story only occurred because of the hysterical response by pro-abortion advocates. The real ad put CBS in the clear, and showed Focus on Family to be either very lucky, or very shrewd. As for the Pro-Choice protesters—not their finest hour.


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