With Congress poised to begin work on a final rewrite of a major telecommunications bill, consumer groups and long-distance carriers complained Thursday that a major cable company is stifling public debate by refusing to air a TV advertisement criticizing the legislation.
The commercial, sponsored by a coalition of long-distance companies such as AT&T; Corp., MCI Communications Corp., as well as the Media Access Project and other consumer groups, was supposed to start airing this week on Cable News Network and run for three weeks, according to MCI spokesman Robert Stewart.
But Turner Broadcasting System Inc., which owns CNN and other cable programs, said it will not air the 30-second ad showing an elderly woman shooing away a group of Washington telephone lobbyists from her doorstep.
"TBS has an interest in the telecommunications bills pending," the company said, "and CNN has been reporting on the bills."
Unlike the four major television networks, which generally do not accept so-called advocacy advertisements on controversial issues, Turner has accepted such ads in the past.
CNN spokesman Steve Haworth said that under a new policy, the all-news cable channel will not air any advocacy ads on the telecommunications bills. Haworth acknowledged that CNN ran advocacy ads in 1992 during the congressional debate over re-regulating the cable industry.
"We took so much heat for that one , we decided not to run advocacy ads this time," Haworth said.
"I think it's a bad policy," said news media critic Ben H. Bagdikian, former dean of the journalism department at UC Berkeley. "While the courts have upheld broadcasters for rejecting an ad for any reason, ethically there is a very fuzzy line over what they call advocacy ads."
The coalition and other consumer groups immediately seized on the refusal to air the ad as evidence of the kind of abuse of power by media giants they believe the bill will encourage.
"This is precisely the kind of stifling of debate by media giants that the telecommunications bill would allow and it is precisely the reason this legislation must be defeated," said Gene Kimmelman, co-director of the Washington office of Consumers Union.
Telecommunications bills passed by the House and Senate last summer would free long-distance carriers, local phone companies and cable TV operators to enter each other's markets. The measures would also loosen restrictions on the number of stations a broadcaster could own and would require the television industry to equip sets with a computer chip that would enable parents to block out programs they find objectionable.
A House-Senate conference committee is expected to meet for the first time next week to reconcile the two measures before Congress takes a final vote on the legislation.