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In whose interest?
Political coverage on television is diminishing, and revenue from political advertising is soaring. Critics say free air time for candidates could help solve the problem
BY IAN DONNIS

Illustration by Rob Zammarchi

After the nastiness of the 2002 campaign season, television might seem like an unlikely place to look for political reform. But it's precisely because of the cost and prevalence of campaign commercials and the tube's primary place in our popular culture that campaign-reform advocates see television as the perfect place to enact change.

The Alliance for Better Campaigns (ABC), a Washington, DC-based nonpartisan group that advocates for political campaigns that inform voters and increase their participation in the political process, is pushing a proposal that would force broadcasters to offer free air time to political candidates before elections -- in addition to increasing political coverage overall. Proponents say the idea is the next frontier in campaign-finance reform.

The concept is hardly radical. The honorary co-chairs of the four-year-old alliance are Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, and Walter Cronkite. A monograph outlining the group's proposal includes expressions of philosophical support from a range of political and business leaders. (Though there is some unintended irony in including this quote from Bill Clinton: "Candidates should be able to talk to voters based on the strength of their ideas, not the size of their pocketbooks." Until George W. Bush surpassed him this election season, Clinton held the distinction of being the politician who'd raised the most political donations in one night.) Publications ranging from the Economist and New York Times to the San Diego Union-Tribune and Memphis Commercial Appeal have given the idea their stamp of approval. And Arizona senator John McCain, who has co-sponsored legislation that would mandate free air time for candidates, notes that television and radio, unlike the print media, use public assets -- the broadcast airwaves -- to function. "When they get a license, they sign a piece of paper that says they will act in the `public interest,'" McCain said in 1999. "It seems to me that the public interest is clearly that they should . . . provide free television time for candidates."

On its face, the idea seems pretty reasonable. Nearly every democracy in the world has some kind of mandate for free television time during campaigns. Broadcasters can afford it: profit margins of 30 percent, 40 percent, and even 50 percent are common in broadcasting, according to Paul Taylor, the former Washington Post reporter who serves as president of the Alliance for Better Campaigns. And, since the Communications Act of 1934 was enacted, broadcasters' free and exclusive use of the airwaves has also been conditioned on their agreement to function as public trustees.

ABC's free-air proposal (spelled out on the group's Web site, www.bettercampaigns.org) would require all radio and television licensees to air a minimum of two hours of weekly candidate discussion, at least half during prime time or drive time, in the month before an election. It would also set up a voucher system in which general-election candidates for US House and Senate who had raised a threshold amount of contributions in small donations would receive direct grants good for campaign commercials. In addition, each of the two major political parties would receive large block grants of broadcast vouchers for use by the parties or individual candidates in different markets. Minor parties that reached qualifying thresholds would receive smaller blocks of broadcast vouchers. The voucher system would be financed by a spectrum-usage fee equal to 0.5 percent of the gross annual revenue of the nation's broadcasters, an amount estimated at $640 million in 2000. (The McCain bill calls for the fee not to exceed one percent of broadcast-license holders' gross annual revenue.)

A quick look at what just happened -- campaign-wise -- shows how such a system could improve political runs for office. Candidates, political parties, and interest groups poured an unprecedented $1 billion into political advertising this year, more than four times the amount spent in 1980, according to the Alliance for Better Campaigns. And thanks to the closely contested gubernatorial race in Rhode Island -- as well as the hard-fought Democratic primary for mayor of Providence, the First Congressional District clash between Patrick Kennedy and David Rogers, and unexpectedly high spending by US Senator Jack Reed -- the greater Providence television market sold 15,450 commercials, for a combined $6.6 million jackpot. (The sum pales, of course, in comparison to larger and more costly media markets; the greater Boston market sold 41,154 political commercials, the most in the nation, for a total of $37 million.)

It's bad enough that the cost of television advertising precludes candidates who aren't rich or well-financed from running competitive campaigns (ABC estimates that $250,000 is the entry threshold for effective challengers for seats in the US House of Representatives). But even as some broadcasters exploit the money to be made during a heated campaign (a Brigham University study of 17 competitive congressional races in 2000 found that the average cost of a 30-second political commercial tripled from the end of August through the end of October that year), we continue to see a reduction in meaningful political coverage. Voters tuning in to local news around the US, for example, were over four times more likely to see political ads than nonpartisan news stories this year, according to the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication. And the Project for Excellence in Journalism, an affiliate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, recently found that rather than rising to the challenge of helping to explain the post-September 11 world, "local TV news continues instead to be a surrogate rubbernecker, taking us to crime scenes, murder trials, and traffic accidents, where we can do little but gawk."

The question now is whether mandated free air time will ever come to pass. And if it does, whether it will work.

IT'S HARDLY a surprise that the notion of providing mandatory free air time is anathema to the broadcasting industry. Media observers give the concept little hope of moving forward. "I would say that calling it an uphill battle is a vast understatement," says Alex S. Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. "Campaign advertising is one of the most profitable aspects of being in the business of television, and I think they [broadcasters] will go to great lengths to protect that turf, always on the basis of free speech. In this case, it just so happens that free speech lines their pockets. I would give it [the free-air-time proposal] virtually no chance whatsoever."

Indeed, judging by the way Congress was convinced to double television-license holders' existing allotment of broadcast spectrum in 1996 -- a multi-billion-dollar giveaway to aid the move toward digital technology -- the industry seems to get what it wants. Take, for example, a 1998 free-air-time proposal from the Clinton White House. The Clinton administration made it clear that it wanted a 22-member advisory panel formed to update the public-interest obligations of broadcasters in the digital age to devise a free-air-time plan. What the panel came up with was a much-watered-down version of ABC's proposal: a recommendation that television stations air at least five minutes a night of candidate-centered discourse in the month before elections. Aside from a small number of exceptions, however, the nation's 1300 television stations ignored the recommendation, and the typical station aired just 45 seconds a night of candidate-centered discourse in the run-up to the 2000 election, according to a Lear Center study.

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), which represents broadcasters before Congress, federal agencies, and the courts, not only insists that television already does its part to inform voters about the issues, but it rejects assertions that the public owns the airwaves. "The bottom line is that while the government may be justified in its power to allocate spectrum, someone else must provide the money, technology, and expertise to make the spectrum valuable," NAB contends in a position paper on its Web site, www.nab.org. "Broadcasters have paid for the spectrum they use through billions of dollars in resources to develop the free, over-the-air broadcasting service to the American public."

It also maintains that viewers don't even want improvements in how television covers campaigns. The NAB recently rolled out a survey of 799 registered voters, which found that 71 percent of respondents opposed government-mandated air time for candidates. Even worse, 43 percent of respondents believe local broadcasters are offering "too much time" in covering elections and 40 percent think the current coverage is "about the right amount." Says NAB president Edward O. Fritts, "We encourage local stations to freely provide comprehensive coverage, and this poll demonstrates that voters believe broadcasters are doing just that."

Beyond that, the broadcasting industry contends that such a requirement would violate its First Amendment right to free speech and Fifth Amendment protection against governmental "taking" of its property without just compensation. The Alliance for Better Campaigns, however, cites other precedents, particularly a 1969 case in which the Supreme Court ruled that it is "the right of the viewers and listeners, not the right of the broadcasters, which is paramount," when their respective First Amendment rights come into conflict. Regardless, the legal issue seems unlikely to come to a head anytime soon. The next battlefield is the Senate, where Senators McCain, Russell Feingold, and Richard Durbin plan to reintroduce next year the free-air-time proposal that they first unveiled in October.

Opponents also say the proposal would make things worse by increasing the number of political ads through the voucher system, and even some of those sympathetic to the concept consider it flawed. Without a doubt, there are candidates who prefer to communicate in the conventional 30-second commercials, rather than in longer "free air" segments. "Free air time is something you cannot give away, because the candidates don't want it," asserts Emily Rooney, the host of WGBH-TV's Greater Boston and a former director of political coverage for the Fox News Channel, citing how Clinton himself and former senator Bob Dole rejected Fox's offer of free air time during the 1996 presidential campaign.

However, one of the clear benefits of the free-air-time proposal is that it would boost those candidates who would otherwise struggle to raise money and be heard by the broadcast audience. Free air time wouldn't create a level playing field, but it could help make political races more competitive.

TELEVISION KEPT politics in the forefront of American public life through the late 1970s, but as explained by ABC's Taylor, a number of factors have changed the situation since then. Campaigns lost their novelty appeal as television events. Chunks of the broadcast audience moved to cable and the Internet. The appeal of politics has suffered, in part, because of the rise of a commercial culture more consumed by money and entertainment than the business of government.

Yet rather than resisting these forces, Taylor says, broadcasters have given in to them and made the vicious cycle stronger by doing so. The networks, for example, have ceded their primacy in political coverage to cable news networks like CNN, MSNBC, and the Fox News Channel. That said, while ABC, NBC, and CBS are still losing viewers, their combined audience of 30 million dwarfs viewership for the cable news networks -- CNN's prime-time audience is a little more than one million.

Still, even though more information is available through a greater variety of sources, relatively few people take advantage of it. Take the 2000 presidential campaign. Polls taken by the Vanishing Voter Project at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government two days before the election found that more than 50 percent of respondents couldn't answer simple questions about Bush's stance on gun control, abortion, and taxes, or Gore's position on Social Security, school vouchers, and affirmative action.

Rooney and some other observers remain untroubled by the failure of many voters to inform themselves. "People are going to seek their own level of entertainment, and I wish more people would watch my show than Seinfeld reruns, but they don't," Rooney says. "As long as the informed people are voting, I'm fine, and I certainly don't blame the broadcasters for this."

Yet Thomas E. Patterson, co-director of the Vanishing Voter Project at Harvard's Kennedy School and the author of The Vanishing Voter: Public Involvement in an Age of Uncertainty (Alfred A. Knopf, 2002), faults broadcasters for surrendering their professional responsibility by cutting political coverage -- other than that of scandals -- through the '90s. "I think they were driven almost entirely by the marketplace, by commercial considerations, and didn't give much of a damn about professional responsibility and public-service obligations," Patterson says. "They can kind of blame it on the audience and on the politicians, but in fact the root change was . . . profit-seeking."

A five-year study of local television by the Project for Excellence in Journalism recently found that quality -- signified by such things as enterprise reporting, airing longer stories, and better sourcing of stories -- is the most likely path to commercial success for local broadcasters. The perception nonetheless remains widespread among even some broadcast veterans -- not to mention among the consultants who help stations to formulate coverage -- that political coverage is a ratings loser. In the scant 12-to-14-minute news quota of a typical half-hour broadcast, other topics get higher priority, with the exception of election-night coverage, debates, and selected sporadic instances.

"If we had five minutes of politics at six o'clock consistently for one year, our ratings would plummet and we'd go out of business," says a Providence TV reporter, who asked to not be identified. "A lot of people think this is boring. It wouldn't take too long before they're going to stop flipping on at six o'clock. People just aren't that interested, and there's no way we can make them interested."

It's possible, though, that some consultants and broadcasters have drawn simplistic conclusions after quizzing viewers on a laundry list of topics. "When you say coverage of politics and government, look out," notes Jim Thistle, director of broadcast education at Boston University and a former TV executive. "[But] a lot of it depends on how you ask the question. If you say coverage of how the government is spending your money, you may get a higher response."

Obviously, the challenge of reinvigorating our political life extends well beyond journalism. Even though negative advertising has the long-term effect of discouraging political participation, Patterson cites as a larger factor generational change and the coming of age of young people, who, "according to Gallup, are the least interested, least informed, at least in the history of recorded polling. They grew up at a time where there was no great national cause to draw them into the arena. What they did see in the arena was a lot of scandal."

Taylor notes that political campaigns are inherently important since they can have a direct bearing on the things -- health, wealth, security, environment, education, and so on -- that people care about. The dramatic elements of character and plot make campaigns compelling, and the audience gets to choose the ending. "Yet somehow when all of these elements are tossed into the broadcast-media blender, the whole concoction comes out as 'ratings poison,'" Taylor notes in outlining the Alliance for Better Campaign's pitch for free air time. "This is not merely a failure of politics; it is also a failure of journalism."

IT'S HARDLY coincidental that ABC's monograph features an epigram from James Madison, who warned, "Popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge brings."

ABC is doing its part to spread knowledge by running a classic grassroots campaign to garner public support for the free-air-time proposal. It's formed a national coalition with more than 50 groups, including the AFL-CIO, AARP, NAACP, and chapters of Common Cause and the League of Women Voters. The alliance's Web site cites 10 steps that supporters can take, from simply talking up free air time in their community to e-mailing five friends the link to an interactive computer game in which a hapless candidate frantically chases campaign contributions before being gobbled up by a sharp-toothed television set (check it out at greedytv.org). And Taylor is barnstorming around the country pushing ABC's proposal; on November 21, he stopped at St. John's Church in Barrington to address an audience of about 60 people, including such interested observers as Mike Guilfoyle, communications director for USRepresentative James Langevin, and Andy Galli, who served as campaign coordinator for outgoing Secretary of State Edward S. Inman III. "You have a status quo of incumbent members of Congress winning 98 percent of the time," Taylor noted, prior to the Rhode Island appearance. "I think the answer is, this system is broken. The public knows it's broken, elected officials know it's broken. Sooner or later, this too will be fixed. It takes time to make the case. That's what we're doing now -- we're making the case."

In the meantime, for all the grousing heard about the recent campaign season, local television coverage compares favorably with many -- perhaps most -- media markets around the country. The commercial-free, hour-long gubernatorial and congressional debates aired by WJAR-TV (Channel 10), as well as the kind of insight offered by such experienced reporters as Jim Hummel, Jim Taricani, and Jack White, shows that, at least in Rhode Island in 2002, the public interest was relatively well-served. WJAR's general manager, Lisa Churchville, says the station carried more than 42 hours of political discussion, including debates and forums, during the campaign season. "If you want to look over what occurred this year, local politics has gotten an incredibly high percentage of our time," she says, pointing to coverage of the trial of former Providence mayor Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci Jr. and the downfall of House Speaker John B. Harwood. "I would say politics is our professional sport, if you will. It is very compelling. It's got a real vibrancy."

Indeed, the willingness of TV executives like Churchville and Kingsley Kelley of WLNE (Channel 6) to come to Common Cause's Barrington forum last month is another positive indicator (Jay Howell of WPRI (Channel 12) was precluded from attending by a conflict in his schedule). "I really want to credit their making an effort to do better," says H. Philip West Jr., executive director of Common Cause of Rhode Island. By contrast, broadcast execs in many other states have been unwilling to even publicly debate the concept of free air time.

Still, even in Providence, the trend has been away from day-to-day televised coverage of politics and government, West says, and the conventions of commercial broadcasting -- in which a lengthy story runs a little over a minute -- clearly aren't suited to conveying a deep understanding of the issues.

The present system works well enough for those -- like Myrth York and Don Carcieri -- who are willing and able to throw heaps of money at television advertising. But in a nation where television remains the dominant source of information for most people, it's hardly a surprise that meaningful political discussion, even with increased local broadcast coverage, can be drowned out by negative campaign commercials and other programming. Indeed, a Common Cause review of 74 evening news broadcasts between July 18 and November 6 shows that the number of paid political ads (761) dwarfed the number of campaign-related stories (107).

Broadcasters like Churchville (who questions the methodology of the Common Cause study and estimates that WJAR offered 12 minutes a weekday of political coverage prior to Election Day) describe mandatory free air time as a threat to a free press. But state Representative Tony Pires (D-Pawtucket), who lagged behind York and Sheldon Whitehouse in the Democratic gubernatorial primary -- no doubt because he had far less in campaign funds than the two "mega-millionaires" -- says the reliance of candidates on television advertising is distorting democracy. Even for a successful businessman and a 16-year legislator like himself, "You do not have any name recognition for the most part and you really have to build this from the base." Meanwhile, as Pires noted at the Common Cause forum in Barrington, "The media constantly looks to that issue of [campaign] resources [in ordaining the most competitive candidates].

The problem extends beyond election coverage, critics note, to the way that sensational stories and the weather get daily emphasis on television, and pressing issues -- like growing economic disparities, housing and health-care crises, and the roots of foreign conflicts -- get little attention, if any.

"We don't want to be dogmatic," says West. "We are simply saying this is a national problem. They [broadcasters] are under enormous pressure from their owners to deliver profitability and to get ratings, so this is a real conundrum. Our hope is that, as we try to thrust the issue into a more public forum, the public will recognize that they have a voice. The citizens at large tend to have a voice only so far as the Nielsen ratings judge if they're watching a particular network. The way the commercial networks typically do it is to dumb down their message and aim for the lowest common denominator. What we're saying is that they can and must do better, because the issue for them may be profits, but the issue is also the need for an informed electorate to keep our democracy vibrant."

Certainly, the outlook isn't made any brighter by the Republican victories on Election Day and Michael Powell's deregulatory leadership of the Federal Communications Commission. Then again, those who believe that the status quo is good enough are the ones with the most to lose.

Ian Donnis can be reached idonnis@phx.com.

Issue Date: December 13 - 19, 2002