Free Speech Movement ... for political candidates
Journalists and politicos ponder the merits and pitfalls of providing free airtime for office-seekers

By D. Lyn Hunter, Public Affairs



From left, Art Torres, Susan Rasky, Dan Schnur, Paul Taylor, and Jerry Brown participated in a Sept. 12 panel discussion at the Institute of Governmental Studies. The group met to argue the merits of providing free broadcast airtime to political candidates.
Noah Berger photo

17 September 2002 | Political campaigns cost a lot of money, due in large part to the high cost of TV ads. An estimated $1 billion was spent on commercials nationwide in 2000. Such an expense means only well-funded candidates can afford to run for office.

While there’s consensus that a problem exists, how it should be fixed is up for debate. One possible solution — proposed by the nonprofit public-interest group Alliance for Better Campaigns and supported by U.S. Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) — would require broadcasters to provide free air time to candidates.

The proposal — which McCain and Feingold will introduce as the Political Campaign Broadcast Activity Improvement Act this fall — was the topic of conversation at an Institute of Governmental Studies panel discussion last Thursday in Moses Hall.

Sharing their views on the merits and pitfalls of free air time were Oakland mayor and two-time presidential candidate Jerry Brown; California Democratic Party chairman and former state senator Art Torres; Berkeley Journalism Professor Susan Rasky; Repub-lican political consultant Dan Schnur; and Paul Taylor, director of the Alliance for Better Campaigns.

“There’s about a $1-million entry fee for those interested in running for [state office],” said Taylor in his opening statement. “And the biggest chunk of that is needed for TV commercials.”

But while broadcasters, who charge exorbitant prices for ads, are part of the problem, according to Taylor, they can also be the source of the solution.

“What we’re asking is for broadcasters to provide at least two hours per week of candidate issue discussion in the month before an election, which is the most expensive time to purchase ads,” Taylor said. “The stations can choose which format they prefer, be it debates, interviews, or town-hall meetings.”

If passed, the McCain/Feingold legislation would also provide qualifying candidates and parties with vouchers ($750 million per two-year cycle) to run a limited number of free ads on TV and radio prior to primary and general elections, financed by charging all broadcast-license holders a spectrum-usage fee.

“The airwaves belong to us,” Taylor said. “Our government grants broadcasters free licenses, but in return they are supposed to serve the public interest. This bill would ensure that they do just that.”

Torres agreed that ads are expensive, but said his party actually spends more money on satisfying complex election-compliance regulations.

“Seventy-five percent of every dollar we raise is used to comply with federal and state accounting laws, and 75 percent of the staff I hire is devoted to complying with the Federal Election Committee and the Fair Political Practices Commission,” he explained. “This is an obscene amount of money to keep lawyers and accountants in business.”

Torres suggested that campaigns be publicly financed, which would remove compliance obstacles by making the process more transparent.

Schnur, a proponent of free airtime, scoffed at the suggestion of public financing of campaigns, stating that in these tough budgetary times, tax dollars should be used for more pressing social needs, like education and health care.

“Free airtime helps put the political system back in the hands of the people,” he said. “Candidates will be able to spend more time talking and listening to the public instead of hanging out with rich people trying to raise money.”

Rasky said that while she finds the efforts of free-airtime advocates noble, there are many problems with the proposed legislation. “There are plenty of things we don’t like about campaigns; they’re too expensive, there are too many ads, and the media doesn’t do a very good job with political coverage,” she said. “Free airtime might improve things a little, but the idea that some arm of the government would tell you [what kind of programming to run] puts the First Amendment at great risk.”

A better use of time and energy, she said, would be to craft legislation that would empower the Federal Communications Commission to force broadcasters to provide public-interest programming.

While he says the pending free-airtime bill “is a fine proposal,” Brown, who drafted the Political Reform Act of 1974 as governor of California, said reform must come about in a more organic way.

“What we’re missing are candidates with charisma and integrity, who, with some allies and minor victories, can challenge the system in a way that will elicit a strong response from the public,” Brown said. “There will be times of discontent, such as an economic depression or scandal, and the right person can seize this opportunity to make some real changes. You have to ‘be’ the reform instead of constructing it.”

Though invited, representatives from the broadcasting industry declined to appear at the event. Instead they forwarded a poll, taken after the 2000 elections, showing that a majority of voters opposed requiring free airtime and felt TV and radio stations spend either too much or about the right amount of time reporting on political campaigns.


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