Free TV time for campaigns?

March 19, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- As the Senate begins its long-avoided floor debate on federal campaign finance reform, you're going to hear an awful lot about how the reformers threaten free speech and how disclosure of contributions is all that's needed to keep the givers and takers honest.

Such smokescreens are diversions from the central fact that the current campaign finance system is legitimatized bribery. The free flow of unregulated or "soft" money to candidates through the back door of state parties has made a mockery of existing contributions limits.

Corporations and unions, barred from making direct contributions to federal candidates, buy access to them with soft money, run television ads on issues associated with them and attack positions supported by their opponents.

It's a transparent shell game that fools nobody.

A key reason the whole business is awash with money is the dominance of television advertising in today's campaigns. As much as a third of federal campaign budgets now goes to buying television time and producing the ads that fill it.

Shutting off soft money as proposed in the McCain-Feingold bill is an important step. But unless something is done about the huge amounts of money required for candidates to get on television, the problem will keep spiraling upward.

While the Senate debate focuses on the fund-raising end, the role of the television industry on the receiving end also warrants examination.

The industry has consistently turned a deaf ear to suggestions that as the recipient of the nation's licensed airwaves it has an obligation to provide ample free time to candidates, especially in presidential campaigns.

Pressures for free television time from the Alliance for Better Campaigns, co-chaired by former Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter and retired CBS news anchorman Walter Cronkite, largely have been ignored.

Not only that. A new report from the group says local television stations systematically gouged campaigns and other political time buyers in the final weeks of the 2000 election.

The report charges they evaded a 30-year-old law providing that stations offer candidates "the lowest unit charge" on their advertising rate cards, the report says, and instead charged them an average of 65 percent more last fall. They were able to do so, the report says, because the law allows stations to bump candidates paying the lowest charge if the stations are offered more money from a commercial advertiser for the same time.

Candidates, however, need to time their advertising for the weeks and days before Election Day and have to pay the premium stations charge for choice time that can't be pre-empted. Mr. Cronkite said the local stations surveyed "not only profited but profiteered" while giving candidates an average of only 45 seconds a night of free time in the last month of the campaign.

Dennis Wharton, a spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters, rejects the charges, saying candidates always get the lowest rate in whatever category of time they seek. He says campaign consultants who get commissions on time buys have little incentive to keep the costs low, and he notes that the Federal Communications Commission hasn't made a single charge against a station for price-gouging at least since 1995.

The McCain-Feingold bill once included but dropped a provision for free air time for candidates, and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. is expected to introduce separate legislation for it. But the industry clearly wants no part of the idea.

A request to local stations to provide candidates five minutes of free time a night in the final month of the 2000 campaign found only one station out of 74 surveyed -- KNXV in Phoenix -- complying. Less than a minute a night was provided by 41 of the 74, including stations in Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Baltimore and Boston.

The question of free air time is likely to be lost in the Senate debate over contribution restrictions as incumbents of both parties have second thoughts about slaying the goose that has been laying golden eggs for them.

But banning soft money is only a beginning, not an end, to cleaning up campaign finance as long as television continues to be an insatiable vacuum cleaner of campaign money.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington Bureau. His latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999).

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