Air Time for Candidates

Dear Barbara,

       Let me address your specific points, and then end on a broader note, discussing why some form of free air time is a linchpin of any campaign-finance reform that would improve campaign discourse for citizens and create opportunities for challengers to get their messages across in competitive races.
       First the specifics. I was not surprised to see you trash the survey I cited on local television news coverage of the 1996 congressional elections; nor was I surprised that you failed to cite countersurveys demonstrating the sterling, solid, and comprehensive coverage local television stations provided of House and Senate races; surveys showing that they stepped up to the plate in their newscasts, eschewing coverage of gore and gossip, to provide the kind of information voters need and deserve. Oh, for the day when we will be awash in credible surveys with those kinds of findings!
       As for the survey I used: It might surprise you that I agree with you; good methodology suggests you don’t do only one survey. So the Rocky Mountain Media Watch, having done their initial survey of local TV coverage of political races on the night of Sept. 11, 1996, on 52 stations in 32 cities, repeated the exercise on the night of Oct. 2, 1996, on 72 stations in 41 cities. Despite the fact that Election Day was even closer–this was the heart of the campaign–the political coverage was even more scant. The Oct. 2 survey found that of those 72 local newscasts, only 10 had stories about senatorial or congressional races, and only nine had stories about state or municipal races.
       But there was something else that appeared in great abundance on those 72 local newscasts–123 paid-political commercials, of which 53 were for the U.S. Senate or House of Representatives, 43 were for the presidency, 14 were for governor or other state contests, eight were for ballot initiatives, and five were general election information. You suggest that lack of competitive races was a major reason for the lack of news coverage–that will come as a surprise to the advertising salesmen at those stations! For a congressional candidate who couldn’t afford to buy many of those paid political commercials, was there any hope that local news coverage would provide an opportunity for his or her campaign to get public attention or contribute to a give-and-take with the opponent? As my grandfather might have said, fugeddaboutit!
       Was that an unrepresentative night? From April 1 through election day in 1996, 752,891 political ads aired on TV stations in the nation’s top 75 markets, at an estimated cost of $400 million (up from the $25 million that was spent on television in 1972). Meanwhile, network news coverage of the presidential race was down by about 50 percent from 1992, and coverage of state and local politics was as meager as always.
       We are the only nation in the world that organizes its political campaigns this way–we force candidates to raise huge sums of money to buy their way onto the airwaves to communicate with a public that has grown sullen and disinterested. The public feels this way partially because the political money-chase has become so tawdry, and partially because the public’s news sources tell them in many ways, through omission and commission, that there is no reason to pay attention. Free air time, you correctly observe, will not eliminate this problem. But it will alleviate it.
       Now let’s turn to your survey data. You cite some data purporting to show that the public is not especially interested in unmediated candidate free air time, preferring debates and newscasts. As I mentioned in my last letter to you, I think debates are great (although voters’ assessment of the value of presidential debates declined precipitously from 1992 to 1996.) And I wish voters got more good information from extensive and solid coverage of campaigns. But the Pew Research Center tells us that only 29 percent of voters gave the press an A or a B for its performance in Campaign ‘96 (even pollsters did better!). They gave the press an overall grade of C. We also know that, as of March of this year, only 37 percent of Americans believed that news organizations get the facts straight, compared to 56 percent who say the stories are often inaccurate.
       And we know that when voters are asked directly what they think about giving candidates free air time to get their messages across, they give an overwhelming endorsement. In a nationwide survey done in September 1996 by the Media Studies Center/Roper Survey, 67 percent said they thought such an innovation would be useful. “Most voters think giving candidates a chance to air their views unfiltered is an idea whose time has come,” said Nancy J. Woodhull, executive director of the Media Studies Center. “Voters are saying, ‘Give us more coverage and less commentary. Forget the chitchat and let us judge the candidates for ourselves.’ “
       Two other surveys on free air time as a component of campaign-finance reform were done in the spring of 1997. CNN/USA Today/Gallup found that by 64 percent to 32 percent, Americans favor requiring TV stations to give free air time to candidates. Louis Harris, in a survey for Business Week, found that 56 percent of all business executives favor mandatory free air time.
       One more rejoinder: You note that you contacted your allies in NAB about the buy-two-get-one-free proposal, and they claim never to have supported it. I was bemused by the language you relayed, which was worthy of a child caught with his hand in the cookie jar, explaining why he wasn’t taking a cookie and had not been in the kitchen in the first place. Let’s make that a child aspiring to be a lawyer. As you like to say on TV, let’s go to the tape. Here’s a quote from the testimony that Jerald Fritz, appearing as NAB’s representative, gave to the House Telecommunications Subcommittee on June 13, 1991: “Let me describe two concepts that NAB can live with. First is the one that was proposed in the last Congress by Rep. [Al] Swift. It abolishes lowest unit rate but gives candidates one free spot for every two spots bought at full price.”
       Now let me return briefly to the larger point. The costs of communicating in America are high and rising. The costs have become prohibitive for many worthy individuals who otherwise might run for Congress. At the same time, news coverage of congressional elections has declined. How can we reduce the “barriers for entry” into the political process, allowing the widest range of Americans an opportunity to run? How can we give candidates an opportunity to get their messages across and have the kind of political discourse, with vigorous give-and-take and accountability that a campaign should provide for voters? How can we alleviate the driving need that candidates have to raise money year-round that has become almost an obsession for challengers and incumbents alike?
       I applaud the efforts of you and the Radio-Television News Directors Association to improve reporting and encourage debates. But that doesn’t seem to be working–and clearly isn’t enough. Alleviating the demand candidates have for resources is a necessary component of any reform. There are ways to bring in some free air time for candidates and parties that will not devastate broadcasters, cripple the FEC, or prove unworkable. I am not surprised that NAB is disavowing its earlier offer and taking the hardest-line position on any public-interest obligations. I had hoped for a different approach from the news side, perhaps because I have been spoiled by Walter Cronkite’s deep commitment to free air time as a part of campaign reform. I remain hopeful that you will join with me, Cronkite, and many of our colleagues to work together exploring those ways to improve our political process.