A local television station claims an infomercial hosted by travel writer Rick Steves promotes the use of marijuana and is consequently refusing to air it. But Fisher Communications, which owns KOMO television, collected thousands of dollars without airing the show.
"It supported that people smoke marijuana," says Jim Clayton, KOMO's vice president and general manager, about the drug-policy-reform infomercial. "Smoking marijuana is illegal and we don't promote things that are illegal on our television station," he says. "We don't tell people to go rob banks, either."
Clayton went on to claim that he rejected the program, Marijuana: It's Time for a Conversation, because the station is "federally licensed, and we have to protect the license at all costs." Under Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules, he says, the station can't air shows that advise breaking the law. But when repeatedly pressed for an example of how the show advocated marijuana use, Clayton said, "I don't know. I watched it a few weeks ago, and I don't remember anything specific." (You can watch it online at MarijuanaConversation.org. )
Rick Steves, well-known PBS travel guide and the host of the talk-show-formatted program, says, "There is no way anybody can watch that show and think it advocates smoking marijuana. Nobody on the panel even hinted that they enjoyed marijuana." The script does not advise viewers to smoke marijuana, nor does the screen ever flash an image of pot. "They were talking about the legal, social, economic, and civil rights ramifications of a misguided law," says Steves.
In addition to KOMO (the local ABC affiliate), KIRO (CBS) rejected the 30-minute show outright and refused to explain its decision to the show's producers. KING (along with its sister station KONG, both with NBC) would only allow the program to air after 1:00 a.m.
KOMO's decision not to air the program came as a shock to the ACLU of Washington, which spent more than $100,000 producing the program, including thousands of dollars that went to KOMO to use its staff and studios at Fisher Plaza.
"We're trying to provide information that's not tainted by either the hysteria of reefer madness, nor by the giggle factor of Cheech and Chong," says Alison Holcomb, director of the ACLU of Washington's Marijuana Education Project, who adds that she provided advance copies of the script to KOMO executives before the program was shot. The script was provided to KOMO in advance, Holcomb says, because she wanted to be sure that the program would air before spending thousands of dollars to rent KOMO's studios and pay KOMO's crews.
"We never heard any objection," says Holcomb. "But once we filmed it and handed it to them, they wouldn't sell us any time slots."
Clayton says he had initially supported airing the program on KOMO because he thought it was about medical marijuana. But he changed his mind after viewing the tape and meeting with ACLU of Washington director Kathleen Taylor on August 4.
The distinction KOMO is trying to make between recreational and medical marijuana use—again, the program advocates for neither—is without merit. If KOMO were actually afraid of losing its federal license because "smoking marijuana is illegal," it would be irrelevant if the show focused on medical marijuana; the federal government doesn't distinguish between recreational and medical pot. All marijuana use is equally illegal in the eyes of the federal government.
"If it is constitutionally protected speech then they can put it on the air," says FCC spokesman Clyde Ensslin, indicating the program's content—even as submitted—was permissible by federal standards.
Nonetheless, Clayton suggests that if the ACLU wants his station to discuss marijuana laws, the group should run a ballot initiative, which would spark a public debate. But KOMO and the other local stations already run commercials that take one side of the public debate on marijuana use: hysterical antidrug campaigns run by the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy.
And KOMO runs programs that depict—even celebrate—recreational pot use.
For example, YouTube clips show that ABC's nationally syndicated Jimmy Kimmel Live!, which broadcasts locally via KOMO, has aired segments about a stoned cop, a stoned firefighter, and a dramatization of an entire office's staff smoking pot, laughing, and having a good time at work.
"The two shows aren't comparable in the least," Clayton said, when I called back to ask about the double standard. There have been no complaints from KOMO viewers about Jimmy Kimmel Live!, but Clayton points out that he doesn't control what the network airs.
"I have to make determinations based on what is best for KOMO," he says. "For 35 years I have run TV stations across the country. I consider myself an enormously experienced broadcast executive and I can make the best decisions for television stations."
Rick Steves would disagree. "We have a law on the books that is as stupid as the prohibition of alcohol, and we can't even talk about it on television because people are afraid," he says. "It is symptomatic of a very serious problem."