Air Time for Candidates

Dear Norm,

       You and I do agree the campaign-finance system deserves scrutiny, something journalists provide on a regular basis for the public. Our disagreement on the issue of providing free broadcast time to political candidates, however, may be more fundamental than you suppose. The presumptions that free time will reduce the costs of campaigning and thereby reduce the role of fund raising in politics, and that free time will benefit the public understanding of politics are both open to question.
       First, on the dramatic increase in campaign costs: You say, “The political money chase has intensified as the costs of communicating with the public increased.” But the reason for the increase is that candidates are buying more time and buying more expensive placement, not that the cost of placing individual spots is rising. A report by the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate found that the cost of buying time, adjusted for inflation, rose at a slower rate than the value of the dollar between 1976 and 1988, also the period of greatest increase in television expenditures in campaigns. Political consultants will tell you that the public has become so inured to political advertising that they have to place three times as many spots as they used to, to get their message across. The decisions that have made campaigning more expensive are made by politicians, not broadcasters. How your proposal would change that behavior is quite unclear. In fact, your proposal would seem to exacerbate the situation by rewarding every purchaser of two minutes of paid time with a minute of free time. This seems to be a formula under which the rich would just get richer, and the candidates who raise and spend the most money will also get the advantage in unpaid time.
       Second, the notion that free time has been unavailable until now is mistaken. The broadcast industry believes in free time, freely given, and research shows that this is what voters support. Broadcasters have always provided a forum for candidates to explain their stance on issues. Broadcasters televise debates between candidates, cover the news conferences of candidates, and interview candidates on public affairs programs. Just last Sunday, Sept. 7, local stations broadcast three debates between the Democratic nominees in the New York City mayoral race.
       Unfortunately, a shockingly large number of these opportunities are refused by candidates. In the 1996 North Carolina Senate race, the incumbent refused every debate with his challenger. It would be much more helpful to political discourse if candidates would accept these offers and engage in civil dialogue on the issues without teleprompters and consultant-scripted sound bites.
       In fact, this is the kind of communication the public prefers. A survey by Opinion Research Corp. found 36 percent of those polled rated televised debates as “the most valuable source of information on candidates”; 30 percent favored newscasts; and 17 percent favored interview programs. Only 6 percent found paid political advertising the most valuable source of information about candidates.
       It is no wonder candidates might favor free time in one-minute blocks that could be tightly controlled. What does surprise me is that well-meaning individuals who want to improve public participation in the electoral process would advocate a form of communication that the public finds much less useful.
       The real fear of broadcast journalists is that candidates would easily duck debates and interviews if they had access to the kind of time you propose to make available. In the 1996 presidential campaign, President Clinton and Sen. Bob Dole accepted the offers of CBS, CNN, Fox, NBC, and PBS to record one- to two-minute segments for later broadcast. The one “free time” offer they refused was ABC’s proposal to have them debate for an hour during the week before Election Day. Clinton and Dole held no news conferences after Labor Day and accepted no Sunday interview show invitations. Your proposal would only make it easier for candidates to avoid answering questions or engaging in a dialogue with each other.
       Finally, I cannot sign off this initial exchange without questioning your statement that this is not a constitutional issue of free speech for broadcasters. Not only does this proposal impinge on the editorial decision-making rights of broadcasters, but it also certainly affects the protection of political communication that is so fundamental to our democracy. Who gets unpaid time and who does not is a question that would certainly wind up in court. Who determines what the candidates can or cannot do in their use of the time? Who decides when the spots must be broadcast? Who decides the ideal length of time? What if a candidate refuses the time? And your contention that congressional candidates would be eligible for time in some markets but not in others again raises the question: Who decides?
       Under the current system, candidates have many opportunities, if they choose to use them, to use the airwaves to get their views across to the public. Your proposal could end up leaving the public less well informed about politics than it is now.