Save the Airwaves

During the final gubernatorial debate, a reporter questioned Democratic candidate Tony Sanchez’s profligate campaign spending. (As of October 28, Sanchez had spent $63.3 million, the bulk of which went to television advertising.) Before defending himself, Sanchez noted half-jokingly that panelist Wayne Slater’s newspaper company, Belo, owned television stations. If they would just cut the rates they charged for commercials, the campaign wouldn’t be so expensive. Slater just smiled. Both he and Sanchez know that such a proposal is not likely to happen.

No company would deliberately reduce its own profits. Few politicians have the guts to demand that they do. And the mainstream media will never tell the American public the truth: Our nation’s democracy is imperiled unless the airwaves are returned to their rightful owners.

It’s estimated that $1 billion will be spent around the nation on political TV advertising this campaign cycle. Some will trumpet this as a sign that free speech and democratic debate are alive and well. Ironically though, much of the advertising will be negative, which most analysts believe dampens turnout by turning off voters. All the money going to pay for this annoying advertising blitz comes either from the deep pockets of wealthy want-to-be politicians or it’s raised, usually, from special interests, who don’t give money away for free.

Just ask the National Association of Television and Radio Broadcasters. As of October 16, their PAC had “donated” $827,813 this election cycle. That included $50,000 bestowed on powerful Louisiana Republican Rep. Billy Tauzin’s Bayou Leader PAC–during a fishing trip in the Florida Keys.

History shows that paying off politicians like Tauzin is a great investment. In 1996 Congress repaid the broadcasters’ largess by giving every TV station in the nation a temporary license for a second channel at no charge. Had they auctioned the licenses instead, the sale would have put between $37 billion and $70 billion into the public coffers. And the looting continues. All this money is helping people like Tauzin forget that under U.S. law, the broadcasters do not own the airwaves–the people do. The government gives broadcasters licenses in return for a pledge that they will serve the public interest.

On October 17, a small bipartisan group of senators introduced modest legislation to begin the process of returning this precious natural resource to the public. They are calling it the Political Campaign Broadcast Activity Improvement Act. It will force every television and radio station with a broadcast license to air at least two hours a week of candidate-centered or issue-centered programming during the period before elections; it will enable qualifying federal candidates and national parties to receive up to $750 million worth of broadcast vouchers (financed by a user fee on broadcasters) to place political advertisements on television and radio stations in each two-year election cycle; and it will close loopholes that broadcasters employ to overcharge candidates for advertising rates.

“The key to campaign finance reform is the cost of television advertising, and this legislation would reduce the amount of money in politics by making the public airwaves more accessible for political speech,” says Senator Richard Durbin (D-Il.), one of the sponsors.

Expect the broadcasters to fight back by ignoring the legislation in the media and using their powerful lobby to crush it in Congress. To find out what you can do to stop them, visit the Alliance for Better Campaigns at www.bettercampaigns.org. –J.B.

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Published at 12:00 am CST