A fairer way to fund campaign commercials

December 12, 2006|By Meredith McGehee

WASHINGTON -- In the 2006 elections, the nation's television stations took in an estimated $2.25 billion for the seemingly endless television ads that besieged our households. That's obviously good news for television stations and the corporations that own them.

But is the current political advertising system good news for America? No. It's a rotten system that needs to change.

What this heavy spending on TV ads really means is that politicians and their parties spent innumerable hours shaking every special-interest money tree they could think of just to raise funds to communicate with the voters using the airwaves that voters own in the first place. Few of these commercials present useful information, and a growing number are negative "attack" ads. This practice enriches broadcasters but diminishes our democracy.

Let's be clear. The candidates and others seeking to advertise on the broadcast airwaves are not to blame for the sordid nature of the current system. After all, there are few means available for candidates to reach large numbers of voters. For any serious candidate for governor or Senate - or for House races within range of even a medium-size media market - buying TV time is a necessity. According to some estimates, the money spent on TV ads - the consultants, pollsters, focus groups, production and time buys - amounts to 60 percent of what a candidate raises.

There's really no other choice. TV stations cannot be relied upon to inform voters about a candidate's position on issues. Voters rely primarily on TV for their political information, yet a recent study by the Midwest News Index found that in seven markets, newscasts aired almost 4 1/2 minutes of paid political ads during a 30-minute broadcast, while only offering 1 minute and 43 seconds of election news coverage. Moreover, local TV political news is overwhelmingly focused on national and statewide elections and characterized by stories on strategy, polling and the game of politics, with very little time devoted to discussion of the issues.

The $2.25 billion spent on political ads this year results from a system that worships at the altar of a free-market broadcast economy - even when such a thing doesn't really exist. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin J. Martin, his predecessor Michael Powell and their like-minded colleagues have convinced themselves that this $2.25 billion boon for TV stations is a sign of a healthy, competitive market.

They are wrong. Too many elections are not decided on a competition of ideas but on a competition of money and political consultants.

The real tragedy of this situation is that $2.25 billion is being spent to gain access to airwaves owned by the American people. TV stations have exclusive and free use of a significant portion of the publicly owned airwaves. The broadcasters' "payment" to the federal government for this cash cow is supposed to be the fulfillment of their public-interest obligations. But these days, those obligations are a joke. The FCC, with the complicity of Congress, has let the broadcasters define for themselves what those obligations are and how to fulfill them. It is notable that licenses have been revoked or not renewed because of profanity, but never for a licensee's failure to fulfill these meaningless, self-defined obligations.

There is a better way, and it doesn't have to involve a heavy-handed government takeover of the airwaves. Imagine a system where candidates who demonstrate a reasonable level of public support can get access to the airwaves if they are able to raise small-donor money - which is matched by a communication voucher. Candidates who wish to advertise can then "buy" airtime on broadcast TV stations with those vouchers. No government mandates, no government censorship, and a reduction in the incentives to sell oneself to the big-money donors.

This proposal would still allow candidates to purchase air time, but it would give nonincumbents a chance to get their message out. Such a measure, dubbed "Our Democracy, Our Airwaves," was introduced in the 108th Congress, but it went nowhere. The bill has been vigorously opposed by the National Association of Broadcasters, whose members profit so handsomely from the current way of doing business and who have scared away most members of Congress from expressing support.

A communication voucher system is a self-regulating structure that won't solve every problem with the political ads that turn off so many voters, but it would begin to return some sanity to a system that has clearly slipped its moorings. Changing the way candidates get access to the public airwaves would strengthen our democracy and should be high on the "to-do" list for the 110th Congress - even if it means undermining the idea of election to Congress as a lifetime appointment.

Meredith McGehee is policy director of the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center, which works in campaign finance, communications and government ethics. Her e-mail is mmcgehee@campaignlegalcenter.org.

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