MoveOn told to move out

Observations on US censorship

As mainstream America worked itself into a state of moral apo-plexy over its brief glimpse of Janet Jackson's nipple during last month's Super Bowl, something else was being blacked out. Besides commercials for beer and fast food, and the now-infamous mammary, the 90 million viewers who tuned in to CBS's coverage should have seen a short film paid for by the activist website

The 30-second piece featured images of grey-faced children performing a series of mundane, low-paid jobs and asked: "Guess who's going to pay off President Bush's $1 trillion tax cut?" MoveOn had raised more than $2m to buy peak-time advertising.

CBS said it didn't want to trouble its viewers with "controversial issues of public importance". Yet during the same match, the broadcaster screened White House-funded images of teenagers slumped unconscious after "drinking and smoking pot". MoveOn accused CBS of "political favouritism", pointing out that its parent company, Viacom, had been among the biggest beneficiaries of the Republicans' loosening of restrictions on media consolidation.

Started in 1998 by two dotcom entrepreneurs, found itself in the vanguard of the peace movement after 9/11 when it called for a restrained and multilateral response. It now links 1.7 million people who, faced with a hide-bound media obsessed by personality politics and largely sympathetic to a Republican agenda, are forced on to the internet in search of alternatives. It has taken full-page ads in the Washington Post and New York Times, and received a donation from George Soros.

It wants, just a tiny bit, to level a playing field tilted heavily towards George Bush and his wealthy corporate supporters. But after it launched a $10m campaign of anti-Bush ads across 17 states considered to be the main battlegrounds in the presidential election, the Republican National Committee put pressure on TV stations. The committee accused MoveOn of violating campaign finance law and warned the stations to "refrain from complicity in any illegal activity". But the MoveOn president, Wes Boyd, says: "Our lawyers assure us that our advertising, and the small contributions from tens of thousands of our members that pay for it, conform in every way to existing finance laws." The administration, he points out, has no problems using federal funds to run ads promoting its Medicare reforms.

This article first appeared in the 29 March 2004 issue of the New Statesman, The power of martyrdom