The Army and the Airwaves

The New Republic, December 20, 1969

And the people of America are challenged, too, challenged to press for responsible news presenta­tions…This is one case where the people must defend themselves; where the citizen, not the govern­ment, must be the reformer. 

       —Vice President Agnew

IN HIS ANALYSIS of the electronic media before the Midwest Regional Repub­lican Committee last month, Vice President Agnew steered clear of one little corner of broadcasting practice — the area of public service an­nouncements.  These are the free advertisements that radio and TV stations provide to such benevolent and non-controversial groups as the Boy Scouts, the National Safety Council, the United Fund and other friendly neighborhood organizations.  It’s all done to show the Federal Communications Commission how public-spirited its licensees are, and how worthy of getting their licenses renewed.

Had the Vice President turned his critical eye toward this little eddy in the public airwaves, he would undoubtedly have noticed that, like the fearsome news commen­taries, some public service announcements are more non-controversial than others.  For example, he might have observed that, come springtime, there are quite a few announcements reminding citizens to pay their income tax by April 15, but no announcements urging citizens not to pay their income tax.  Or likewise, that audi­ences are occasionally encouraged to purchase US Savings Bonds, but never exhorted to boycott them.

Such observations might not have disturbed Ag­new’s own sense of fair play, but they did arouse the interest of a band of citizens in San Francisco who have struck out in search of reform.  The citi­zens are members of antiwar groups: San Francisco Women for Peace, the GI Association and the Resis­tance.  They have observed that there is no shortage of public service announcements urging young men to enlist in one of the armed ser­vices, but never any advertisements urging men not to join the military.  This is a most unsatisfactory imbalance, say the citizen groups, and they are seeking to correct it.

I don’t know exactly how much money the Penta­gon spends on recruitment ads for the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, but it is undoubt­edly a size­able sum.  Hundreds of stations throughout the country receive periodically from the armed forces an assortment of film clips, recorded spots and reading copy.  The trend lately is toward “groovy” ads that appeal to today’s turned-on youth, though the tra­di­­tion­ally solid “take-it-from-me” endorsements are still widely used (plugging the Marine Corps these days, for example, are Ed McMahon, Jonathan Winters, Jack Webb and Art Buchwald).  In the small and medium-sized cities, where stations carry many more recruitment ads than in the large metropolitan areas, local recruiters often go down to stations and broad­cast their own personal appeals.

TO RECTIFY the preponderance of military recruiting on the airwaves, the San Francisco peace groups have prepared a series of anti-recruitment ads (“See your draft counselor, not your recruiter”), and have requested Northern California sta­tions to broadcast them.  The basis for their request is interesting, and apparently sound: it rests on the Fairness Doctrine of the FCC, and the manner in which that doctrine was applied to cigarette advertisements.

Back in 1967, a young lawyer named John Banz­haf III complained to the FCC that WCBS-TV in New York City was carrying lots of cigarette commercials, but little in the way of announcements indicating that smoking might be hazardous to one’s health.  In a landmark ruling on June 5, 1967, the FCC upheld Banzhaf’s com­plaint, declaring that “ the Fairness Doc­trine is applicable to such advertisements,” and that any station that presents such advertisements “has the duty of informing its audience of the other side of this controversial issue of public importance.”  In the two years since that decision, anti-smoking ads sponsored by the American Cancer Society and others have been so effective that the tobacco companies have decided to eliminate all broadcast commercials (and thereby the broadcaster’s obligation to run anti-smoking ads) as of next year.

The San Francisco antiwar groups are following this precedent.  In his letter to the radio and TV stations, attorney Donald Jelinek, who represents the groups, contends that military service today “is a controversial issue of public import­ance — far more controversial and far more important than the issue of whether an individual ought to smoke ciga­rettes.”

The recruitment advertisements, says Jelinek, “argue that participation in the armed forces is beneficial to the individual and to society at large.  They suggest that parti­ci­pation in the military is moral, manly, socially acceptable and desirable, and, because of the Selective Service laws, obligatory for young men.  It is never indicated in any of the recruitment advertise­ments that an individual’s participation in the armed ser­vices could lead to his involvement in the Vietnam war, that such participation could endanger his physical and mental well-being, that it could com­promise his moral prin­ciples, or that it could be con­trary to the national interest.  Nor is it indicated in any of the recruitment advertisements that many defer­ments to military service are available under present laws and regulations.”

In short, the other side of a highly controversial issue is not being presented in the public service an­nouncements of most radio and TV stations and under the Fairness Doctrine, it ought to be.  If the stations around San Francisco do not respond favor­ably, the antiwar groups plan to complain to the FCC, and then, if necessary, to the federal courts.  The mind boggles at the impact that could be made by some powerful anti-recruitment ads, and at the possibilities that could open up for public service announcements in other contro­versial areas.