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2004-07-14

Clear Channel Rejects Times Square Peace Billboard Timed for RNC

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Media giant Clear Channel is reneging on a deal with a Berkeley-based organization, Project Billboard, to put up a peace sign in Times Square, New York. Clear Channel, which has ties to the Bush administration, rejected the ad calling it "distasteful" and "politically charged." [includes rush transcript]

We are broadcasting from our firehouse studio in Chinatown at the Downtown Community Television center. Further uptown, lies the bustling center of New York City–Times Square.

Each year, more than 26 million people visit the 10-block area where Seventh Avenue meets Broadway. Massive neon light displays illuminate the night sky, giant billboards trumpet Broadway shows, an electronic ticker beams the latest news and stock quotes and some 50 "supersigns" display ads for fashion, liquor and other corporate products.

Media giant Clear Channel controls about one-half of these billboards. It is now refusing to put up one organization’s billboard, with which it had a signed contract. The sign showed a picture of a bomb with lighted fuse decorated in Stars and Stripes. The caption underneath reads "Democracy is best taught by example, not by war." The billboard was to be mounted on the facade of the Marriott Marquis Hotel.

In a lawsuit filed in New York federal court this week, the Berkeley-based organization Project Billboard is saying Clear Channel breached a $368,000 contract to put up the peace sign during the Republican National Convention in August.

Clear Channel Outdoor, the division that controls the company’s billboard leasing, rejected the ad, calling it "distasteful" and "politically charged."

Clear Channel’s corporate leadership has a history of political activism on behalf of Republicans. Tom Hicks, a major shareholder and former member of the company’s board, purchased the Texas Rangers from George W. Bush in 1998 and contributed to his campaigns. Company employees have given $382,000 to Republicans in the current election cycle. This according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The company has previously been accused of using its media outlets to assist the GOP. Some company radio stations banned the Dixie Chicks from their programming after the group’s lead singer, Natalie Maines, criticized Bush. Shock-jock Howard Stern accused Clear Channel of dropping his show in retaliation for anti-Bush rhetoric.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined on the telephone by Jeffery Chester, Executive Director of the Center for Digital Democracy, and Howard Wolfson, spokesperson for Project Billboard. Howard Wolfson, what happened?

HOWARD WOLFSON: Well, you described it very well in your intro. Essentially Project Billboards is an organization dedicated to stimulating debate about the important issues facing America today, nothing more important than the war. They contracted with Clear Channel to replace the billboard you described in Times Square and just before the billboard was supposed to go up, we received notice from Clear Channel when they saw the art, that they didn’t like it. They found it offensive and clearly didn’t agree with it. Clear Channel has a long history, as you know, of suppressing speech it doesn’t agree with and has been very outspoken in favor of the war. They told us at Project Billboards that we couldn’t run it. So, we are now in court this week seeking to ensure that Clear Channel lives up to the terms of its contract with us and runs the billboard.

AMY GOODMAN: We talked to Clear Channel. They refused to come on. We called the Marriott Marquis Hotel. They refused to come on. I wanted to talk about Clear Channel for a minute. Clear Channel’s corporate leadership has a history of political activism on behalf of Republicans. The owners of Clear Channel are very closely connected to the Bush Administration. Tom Hicks, a major shareholder and former member of the company’s board, purchased the Texas Rangers from George W. Bush in 1998 and contributed to his campaigns. Company employees have given over $382,000 to Republicans in the current election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The company has previously been accused of using its media outlets to assist the Bush Administration. Some company radio stations banned the Dixie Chicks from their programming after the group’s lead singer, Natalie Maines, criticized Bush. Shock jock Howard Stern accused Clear Channel of dropping his show in retaliation for his criticism of President Bush. Jeffery Chester, can you talk about the role of Clear Channel, also in terms of just how much space does it own from billboards to running huge concert venues, not to mention the radio stations.

JEFFREY CHESTER: We have two conservative media conglomerates that have benefited from lobbying Washington and sweeping away FCC Congressional rules on media ownership to conservative right-wing media companies, like Fox and Clear Channel and they’re aligned in many ways. Three quarters, as you said, of all the money, 75%, much more than most companies who contribute to political campaigns, are going to Republicans. We’re talking about a company that 25 years ago had one radio station in Texas that today has 1200 radio stations, that control 800,000 billboards. 800,000 billboards in this country. They control sports figures, they do Broadway shows, they are a monolith with 30,000 employees, 37,000 employees across the country. Their radio network has 500, they are in 100 top markets with 500 stations. They promote Rush Limbaugh and distribute his programs. They have tremendous control over radio and over the billboard space in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: Is it true that the subway system in Boston, also turned down ads, those ads criticizing Kerry?

JEFFREY CHESTER: I don’t know that. I don’t know if Howard knows it. But, they are making political decisions about who has access to the media properties that they own. They have been allowed to become this kind of swollen giant because Republicans and many Democrats have helped dismantle media ownership rules and restrictions and what this incident underscores — because remember last year companies like Comcast and Fox refused to run anti-war spots on television, Viacom’s CBS refused to sell time to Move On in the Super Bowl. It underscores that we need to have a major revision of the media ownership rules in this country that simply will not permit a Clear Channel to have so much diversified control over key media outlets all across the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Howard Wolfson, you did modify the billboards. Is that right?

HOWARD WOLFSON: Last week, there were some negotiations with Clear Channel, Project Billboards was eager to get the billboards up and we did come back to them with an offer of replacing the bomb with a dove image.

AMY GOODMAN: And so you would have the dove in red, white, and blue, in the bars and stripes, and underneath, the statement would be?

HOWARD WOLFSON: The same exact text that you read, that democracy — let me pull it up. "Democracy is Best Taught By Example, Not By War."

AMY GOODMAN: And so what happened, you agreed to change the ad?

HOWARD WOLFSON: Well, we offered it in a spirit of compromise and Clear Channel didn’t accept it, which is why we had to take them to court. We were all of last week trying as best as we could to negotiate some kind of agreement with them that would let us put our billboard up and express the views that we think are important to express and we were not given that opportunity. And as a result, we had no recourse but to go before a judge.

AMY GOODMAN: When do we expect to hear a decision?

HOWARD WOLFSON: The next ruling, the next hearing is on Thursday and it’s possible we may get a decision on that day or it’s possible it may get pushed back.

AMY GOODMAN: Though Clear Channel refused to come on with us, on their website, it says "Clear Channel Outdoor owns half a million Outdoor displays around the world. No one else can even begin to match our strength in numbers", Clear Channel says. They say "Clear Channel is the world’s largest outdoor advertiser with 800,000 out-of-home displays. They’re also a world media leader with 1225 radio stations in the United States, 240 radio stations international in 300 markets, 37 television stations, over 900 international websites and the world’s largest concert promoter."

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