Air Time for Candidates

Dear Norm,

       The more detail you provide for your plan for free broadcast time for political candidates, the more frightening it becomes. Your description of how the plan would work sets forth a system that is complex, unrealistic, unworkable, and probably unenforceable. In addition, you have made some misstatements of factual matters that need to be corrected.
       First, let me take the one that hits closest to home, your attack on broadcast journalists and their coverage of politics. You cite a 1996 survey of 52 stations by the Rocky Mountain Media Watch that found that, on one evening during the fall campaign, there was a low percentage of coverage of Senate, state, congressional, and mayoral races. I’m frankly surprised that, as a political scientist, you did not look more closely at this survey. If you had, you would have learned that of the stations monitored: only half were in cities where a Senate race was taking place, only 31 percent had competitive races, and only 20 percent had competitive House races. No wonder the survey found few political stories. After all, these stations are in the news business, and in many of the cities monitored, there were no election contests to qualify as news. And, of course, one night’s monitoring is a very unrepresentative sample of a station’s coverage.
       I’m sure some of your best friends are journalists. But your dart directed at broadcast journalism is worrisome because it suggests that you and other advocates think free time is somehow a remedy to correct faults in news coverage that aims to examine candidates’ claims, compare positions on issues, and even act as truth squads on campaign advertising. The public does not agree that unmediated candidate time is better than news coverage in helping them make their voting decisions, nor do they find debates as ineffective as you say. A 1997 Opinion Research Corp. survey showed 36 percent of voters rated televised debates the most valuable source of information on candidates, 30 percent cited newscasts, and only 6 percent named candidate ads.
       As an organization, the Radio-Television News Directors Association need not be ashamed, as you charge, of its record of support for thorough, fair, and honest reporting on politics. Our foundation has long offered a series of seminars on the techniques of civic journalism and, in the past two years, on reporting on campaign finance. In partnership with the National Association of Broadcasters, we have sponsored efforts to show local stations how to present political debates in their communities. As a resource for our members, who are largely local television and radio news managers, we believe it is our responsibility to provide tools they can use to continue to make their campaign coverage more incisive, more relevant, and more useful to the public.
       Now, to the specifics you have spelled out for your plan. Your plan seems complex and bureaucratic and would require major changes in current campaign-finance laws. For example, basing a candidate’s qualification for time vouchers on donations of $100 would require two new reporting categories, since candidates now are only required to report individual contributions of $200 or more. They would now have to report individual donations up to $100, then report in aggregate for donations of $101 to $199, then report individual donations over $200 as they currently do. Another difficulty is the plan to allow candidates to donate vouchers to other candidates. How does this square with the $5,000 limit on cash or in-kind contributions any candidate can make to other campaigns now?
       What impact would the plan have on the Federal Elections Commission, which is already running years behind in its investigations of alleged violations? As overburdened as that agency is, how can it be expected to keep track of a vast new system of contributions and vouchers?
       Your assumptions on where the money would come from still seem to come down to taking it from broadcasters. Even worse, you may be planning to spend money that won’t be there. You say broadcasters will have to pay for non-high-definition television uses of the digital spectrum, but that is by no means clear, especially if the services are not revenue-generating. And last month’s Senate Commerce Committee hearing showed that most broadcasters, including ABC, do intend to deliver high-definition television. As for refunds to stations left holding excess vouchers, who pays them back? The parties? The taxpayers? How do we know that money will be there at the end of the campaign?
       I checked with NAB on your second financing option–buy two, get one minute free–and they have not supported this proposal as you say they have. On a House proposal several years ago to give candidates a 30-percent discount on television time if they agreed to spending limits, NAB agreed to the 30-percent discount at a time when the Federal Communications Commission had not yet clarified its rules. The discount would have applied only if candidates themselves purchased time, not if it would go into a bank for other users.
       What still puzzles me is what reform you are trying to accomplish by granting free time to political candidates. If you are trying to reduce the money candidates spend and therefore need to raise, I don’t see how this plan accomplishes that. With no spending limits, there is no incentive to hold back on buying time. The addition of free time to this mix seems to guarantee that candidate time on the air would double, not decline.
       If you want to inform and engage the public, more ad time–even if it is restricted to the candidates themselves–seems unlikely to attract an audience. We know the low esteem in which the public holds paid ads. The additional free time seems certain to drive most viewers to the remote control.