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Political football

TOO BAD the fine new MoveOn.org TV ad attacking the deficit created by President Bush won't be seen on the CBS broadcast of the Super Bowl this Sunday. It belongs there -- as does the opposing view.

What better place for a contest of ideologies than in this annual extravaganza of excess that is as much about selling commercial images as it is about the guts and grit of football. CBS would provide a much needed public service at the start of this presidential year by selling some Super Bowl air time to opposing political advocates who, with spots as clever as any for a razor or a computer, might jolt blase voters into caring.

Call it the "Poli-Bowl" and plunk it into 10 minutes of the halftime ad blitz, perhaps with a voice-over intro saying: "And now a word from our country."

But CBS has turned down MoveOn.org's ad and the $1.6 million to air it as well as an ad from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, citing a no-advocacy ad policy in national programming. Affiliates can run the ads locally, but the national commercial airwaves must be kept free of issue-mongers, says CBS, because selling a spot to one could bring on a stampede and favor the well-heeled advocate.

"We have a longstanding, clear, and consistent policy of not allowing advocacy ads so that deep pockets cannot control one side of a public policy debate, be it conservative or liberal," said Dana McClintock, senior vice president of communications for CBS.

But deep pockets do exercise a lot of control over what the public hears and sees on the airwaves, and most of these messages push products -- or sponsor programming that panders to the market advertisers want to target.

Such are the workings of capitalism. And that's all the more reason a national network might consider selling time to people peddling ideas for a change. After all, there is no more Fairness Doctrine, under which the Federal Communications Commission once mandated balanced coverage of controversial issues and free response time for opposing views. Today the FCC simply requires broadcasters to sell time to the opposition if it accepts a political candidate's ad.

A national "Poli-Bowl" has the potential for being a lot more lively and would have a far broader audience, given that more than 85 million people are expected to tune in to the game on Sunday -- almost as many as the 105.6 million who voted in the 2000 election.

MoveOn.org's 30-second ad, which has aired on CNN, is a gentle yet powerful depiction of how hard today's children will have to work to pay off the country's mounting deficit. That's a vital message that might get lost in a year of campaign rhetoric, and it deserves a response from the White House in its own 30 seconds of imagery.

America, sitting on the couch, junk food in hand, just might sit up and want to know more.

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