Protesters Slam Tampa TV Station Over Anti-Gay Infomercial
St. Petersburg, Florida’s GLBT community celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots--viewed as the birth of the GLBT civil rights movement--with a Pride parade on June 27.
Then celebrants saw what WFLA Channel 8, a Tampa TV station and NBC affiliate, saw fit to put on the air that very evening: a paid program called "Silencing the Christians" that claims GLBT equality constitutes an attack on religious freedoms.
The response was immediate--and angry. A thousand calls and email messages inundated the station in the immediate wake of the program’s airing. A comment from the station’s general manager, Mike Pumo, that the infomercial--which showcases individuals claiming to be "ex" gays--did not "raise a red flag" in his opinion was also slammed.
The communications director for GLBT equality group Equality Florida, Brian Winfield, was quoted in a July 9 EDGE article as saying, "WFLA’s silence on this issue is unacceptable."
Winfield expressed concern about the impact the program would have on the community at large, gay and straight alike. "We know that when this kind of anti-gay rhetoric rises in a community, hate crimes and anti-gay harassment also rise in that community," Winfield pointed out.
"We believe firmly that airing these shows does real harm to the community and that is the minimum criteria that a network ought to have in choosing content."
Added Winfield, "There’s been a lot of discussion about whether we should spend our time and resources going after WFLA on this issue and this will let us strategize on what the community wants to do next."
The community didn’t take the infomercial’s provocative content and air date lightly, as it turned out; a July 15 article at Tampa Bay Online reported that about 100 protesters gathered outside WFLA Channel 8 at about 5:00 p.m. that same day to chant and carry placards.
Some of the protesters wore T-shirts emblazoned with the words "New Channel H8," the article said.
The article quoted Pride Tampa Bay’s director, R. Zeke Fread, as saying that the program’s airing the same day as the Pride celebration that observed the 40th anniversary of Stonewall "was a slap in the face of the gay pride movement."
Added Fread, who was in attendance at the protest, "It was an hour-long attack on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people."
The 60-minute infomercial was paid for by the anti-gay American Family Association, which reportedly shelled out $35,000 for the hour-long block of programming time.
Fread suggested that the station could make amends by donating the $35,000 fee to a GLBT charity.
Failing that, Fread said, the station might counter-balance the paid program’s anti-gay message by airing a documentary that shows the GLBT side.
The hour-long paid program had caused waves before. Last winter, a Grand Rapids TV station twice delayed and then ultimately did not air the program, so great was the outcry provoked by the ad’s anti-gay content.
Controversy over the program also stopped it from airing on a Columbus, Ohio, station.
The paid program did air in other areas, including Los Angeles, Charlotte, North Carolina, and Topeka, Kansas, which is the home base of the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church.
The Tampa Bay Online article quoted GaYBOR District Coalition president Carrie West as remarking that no other station had carried the infomercial.
Added West, "It was very disturbing to a lot of people."
The station’s programming was defended by John Schueler, the president of the Florida Communications Group, part of the station’s corporate owner, Media General.
Said Schueler in a written statement, "Our overriding mission is to provide platforms for the broadest points of view and be responsible to the community we serve.
"We understand that doing so can cause strong disagreement," Scheuler continued.
"We screened this program and ran a disclaimer before and after it ran noting that this does not reflect the views of WFLA."
But under the law, the group that paid to put "Silencing the Christians" in the air was within its rights not to be silenced itself and to see their message on the airwaves, the article noted, quoting a lawyer specializing in First Amendment issues.
Said attorney Luke Lirot, "they can engage in any First Amendment-protected speech, no matter how heinous.
"You have to respect the First Amendment’s neutrality," Lirot added.
As for WFLA Channel 8, Lirot said the station merely "adhered to their obligation to give people access to the airwaves."
John Dingfelder, a member of the city council, was also present at the protest. Dingfelder framed the issue in terms of social acceptability, rather than Constitutional freedoms.
Observed the councilman, "I don’t think this station would show a 30-minute infomercial in favor of racism or anti-Semitic behavior.
"That sort of thing; that’s not acceptable," Dingfelder said.
"Neither is a 30-minute infomercial about homophobia."