THE refusal of the three major television networks to air an ``advocacy'' commercial by W. R. Grace & Co. was, after all, network business as usual. But it's still nothing to applaud.

Grace, whose chairman, J. Peter Grace, headed a task force on cost-cutting in government awhile back, hired film director Ridley Scott (of ``Alien'' fame) to make ``The Deficit Trials.'' This mini-drama, set in the year 2017, shows children who have put their elders on trial for having let the deficit get out of hand.

Grace wanted to run ``The Deficit Trials'' right after the President's State of the Union message. All three networks turned it down as ``too controversial.'' The commercial has been accepted by the Cable News Network, various independent stations, and some local network affiliates.

The Federal Communications Commission requires broadcasters to air commercials by candidates for political office, but otherwise they can refuse advertising that is, broadly defined, ``political.'' Acceptance of a political ad obliges a broadcaster to make time available for opposing views on the issue. It's hard to imagine who would want to pay to argue that a $2 trillion national debt benefits the country.

It's also hard to argue that public issues can be discussed effectively in 60-second television spots. But it's never a good idea to underestimate the power of television. And it's disheartening to see television cut itself off from discussing the issues that really matter.

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