The case for giving the candidates free television time

April 19, 1996|By JACK W. GERMON & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- The political system has become so bad that even the politicians are trying to find ways to make it better.

One sign is the initiative Haley Barbour, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, has taken to study the schedule of presidential primaries that produced a de facto nominee for his party in record time this year -- without giving most primary voters in most major states any voice in the process.

''Free TV'' campaign

Another is the positive bipartisan response to a campaign being conducted by a group called the ''Free TV for Straight Talk Coalition'' to persuade the television networks to give presidential candidates free time during the general election campaign this fall.

Although neither of the presumptive 1996 candidates, President Clinton and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, has endorsed the plan, it does have the backing now of -- among others -- Sens. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, a Democrat, and John McCain of Arizona, a Republican, and two former national party chairmen, Republican Frank Fahrenkopf and Democrat Charles Manatt.

Of all things -- a reporter

The principal organizer of the free TV initiative is, of all things, a former political reporter, Paul Taylor, who quit his job at the Washington Post to pursue the idea after years of first-hand exposure to the way the current system falls so far short.

The idea would be for the networks to give each major party candidate a fixed amount of time, perhaps five minutes, at a fixed hour in prime time for the final month of the general election campaign.

The candidates themselves

The candidates would have to use the time by appearing themselves and talking to the voters directly.

The idea of free air time has been kicking around for years, and skeptics like ourselves have always brushed it aside as impractical.

The networks, the theory has been, would never agree and even if they did, no one would watch the five-minute talking heads every night.

But the pervasive dissatisfaction with the system as it works now has reached a point at which we should be more open-minded about the idea. And the notion that ''no one would watch'' fails to take into account how such a schedule could affect the campaign.

For one thing, because the candidates themselves would be required to go on camera, even five-minute segments broadcast night after night would be revealing.

Candidates could not simply deliver their standard fodder of generalities over a full month without being perceived as vacuous and arrogant.

On the issues

On the contrary, they would have to make a serious effort to outline in some detail their positions on a whole range of issues both foreign and domestic.

Moreover, such a schedule inevitably would become a prime topic for press coverage of the campaign.

There would be daily stories, both in newspapers and news broadcasts, comparing the contrasting messages of the candidates and analyzing the strategies underlying the choice of topics for discussion.

It would be likely that the daily appearances would become a kind of month-long debate, with each candidate using his time to counter his opponent as well as to air his own proposals.

The night ahead

It might turn out, of course, that many voters would use that five minutes to open a beer in preparation for a long evening of watching sitcoms.

But that is hardly a rationale for denying the opportunity for others to watch. And the huge audiences for the televised debates in the 1992 campaign suggest that many Americans can become caught up in a political contest.

There are many reforms needed to make political campaigns more educational and positive than they have become in the television age.

Venal commercials

Some of the most venal television commercials might be eliminated, for example, if campaigns were required to allow their opponents to see their spots 24 hours before they are broadcast -- that is, in time to prepare an instant response.

We won't hold our breath waiting for these reforms to be enacted.

But the smell of the existing system is rank enough to earn them some attention.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 4/19/96

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