Make campaign ads free

April 25, 2001|By Loren Glass

SPEECH IS NOT free in the United States. It costs money. In fact, as far as the Supreme Court is concerned, speech is money.

According to its 1976 ruling in Buckley vs. Valeo, spending equals speaking, and therefore it is more than likely that considerable portions of the McCain-Feingold bill will be found unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds.

Of course, spending is not the same thing as speaking. But those with money to spend have the power to control those who speak. And that's why any effort to reform campaign financing that's based in restricting donations to campaigns and candidates is bound to fail.

Even if portions of the bill, assuming it even passes, make it through the inevitable Supreme Court appeal, those with money will find a way to influence those running for office.

Focusing on the supply side of campaign finance is futile, and most politicians know this, which is probably why they're focusing on it. So long as campaigns cost millions of dollars, politicians and political parties will find a way to raise millions of dollars.

But campaigns don't need to cost millions of dollars; in fact, it would be easier and less constitutionally problematic, to focus on demand.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, close to $500 million was spent on television advertising during the 2000 federal election cycle. Such advertising is by far the most expensive part of a political campaign. If the cost of such advertising were reduced or eliminated, the need for fund raising would be greatly diminished.

Achieving this objective would be easier than assumed. Not enough Americans are aware that the airwaves are public property; they belong to the people of the United States. The networks have been generously granted their use by the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

Nevertheless, it is still within the power of Congress and the Federal Communications Commission to mandate free airtime for all state and national campaigns.

Such a mandate would substantially reduce the cost of running for state and even national office. This would open political campaigns to people without a great deal of money, who presumably have not been bought by corporate interests. Challengers would no longer be at drastic disadvantages, and viable third parties might even develop.

More important, the American people would come to understand that the airwaves are public, not private, property and that their fundamental purpose should not be the profit of huge corporations, but the participation of ordinary people.

Why aren't any of the politicians talking about this? Because they're afraid of the economic power of the media giants and of the potential political power of the American people. In the end, most politicians represent themselves, not the public.

In fact, no one really represents, legally or politically, the public, and this is why it's been so difficult to effect laws and policies which truly benefit us. McCain-Feingold is simply a red herring to distract us from the real issue.

That issue is whether the public can establish the political awareness to claim to its most valuable property: the medium in which speech circulates. A major step in this process would be to make political TV ads free.

In the end, the best way to make campaigning less expensive is to make talk cheap.

Loren Glass is an assistant professor of American literature and cultural studies at Towson University.

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