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Free Air Time

March 30, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT


WALTER CRONKITE: We simply have to take American democracy off the auction block, and this is a way of getting it done.

TERENCE SMITH: Walter Cronkite was often called the most trusted man in America when he was the anchor of the CBS Evening News.

WALTER CRONKITE: And that’s the way it is, Friday, February 2, 1979.

TERENCE SMITH: Now Cronkite has a new mission: Pressing television stations to devote more time to candidates for public office. It’s an effort to help reduce the role of money in politics and reverse the decline in voter participation. Fewer than half those of voting age cast ballots in the last presidential race, the lowest percentage since 1924; and only about a third in the last congressional contests, the lowest since 1942 — this, despite the higher turnouts in some of this year’s early presidential primaries. Cronkite argues that shrinking television coverage is partly to blame.

WALTER CRONKITE: The time given to political coverage in most communities by most stations is limited literally to seconds. It’s a little hard to get any sense of what a campaign is about with such truncated coverage as that.

TERENCE SMITH: But to date, Cronkite’s effort for more political coverage has largely been ignored by broadcasters.

TERENCE SMITH: What’s your reaction to the lack of response so far? Surprise or what?

WALTER CRONKITE: Well, it’s disappointment primarily and a feeling of a certain irresponsibility.

TERENCE SMITH: And how would the former anchor have reacted if some outsider had demanded that he give politicians substantially more airtime?

WALTER CRONKITE: I think I would have said hooray, if you enforce this with all of our competitors and we’re all on the same playing field, absolutely. I think — I think it would work.

PAUL TAYLOR, Director, Alliance for Better Campaigns: Good morning, everyone and welcome. My name is Paul Taylor.

TERENCE SMITH: Paul Taylor heads the alliance for better campaigns as Cronkite’s ally in the effort to increase coverage of political candidates. Taylor’s group is supported in part by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Taylor says network coverage of the presidential race has been pretty good so far, although he points out that only two of more than 20 debates were broadcast on the networks, neither in prime time. But Taylor is even more worried about lack of coverage of other races.

PAUL TAYLOR: It could be particularly better at the local level where the real problem it seems to me is with local stations and their failure to cover state and local races.

PAUL TAYLOR: Looking at the two hours of news programming that occurs —

TERENCE SMITH: Taylor points to studies of 1999 mayoral races in Baltimore, Philadelphia and San Francisco. He says even when stations did several campaign stories a night, the candidates themselves were only heard for a total of about 30 seconds. He’s especially critical of coverage of the 1998 California governor’s race.

PAUL TAYLOR: It was probably the most important political campaign in the country that year. The University of Southern California looked at all of the television stations in the five biggest markets in California, and found that, on average, news stations in those five cities devoted less than 0.5 of 1 percent of their news coverage to that gubernatorial race. Meantime, candidates had to raise $100 million for advertising in order to get a message out to the enormous state that they were running in. There’s a terrible imbalance there. You’ve got a blizzard of ads, you’ve got no coverage, and the public says, “I’m out of here.”

TERENCE SMITH: To reduce the dominance of political ads and improve candidate coverage, Taylor proposes that each television station voluntarily devote five minutes a night in the 30 nights before a primary or general election to let candidates speak out. He calls it candidate-centered discourse.

Taylor would leave it to each station to choose its own formats, including mini-debates, interviews and statements to the camera. Each station would also decide how to use the five minutes a night, whether in a single block within a single newscast, or divided between newscasts and prime time. Any formula will work, Taylor says, so long as one or more candidates for one or more offices is on camera a total of five minutes a night. But broadcasters aren’t buying it. So far, about 25 of the nation’s 1,250 commercial television stations, and none of the networks, have agreed to Taylor’s proposal.

Barbara Cochran, head of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, offers one explanation.

BARBARA COCHRAN: It’s not because news directors are evil or lazy or don’t understand what their audience wants. It’s because they do understand what their audience wants, and I’m sorry to tell you that news about politics is rather far down on the list of things that the public is interested in.

TERENCE SMITH: Despite broadcasters’ lack of enthusiasm for Taylor’s proposal, Vice President Gore put it firmly back on the political agenda this week during his speech on campaign finance reform.

AL GORE: I will strongly advocate the approach developed by Paul Taylor. Every broadcaster should give every candidate for federal office five minutes of airtime a night in the last 30 days before the general election.

TERENCE SMITH: And this week Taylor’s alliance and 18 other citizen groups asked the Federal Communications Commission to require stations to give free time to candidates, since all but a few have ignored his call for voluntary free time. But the FCC is unlikely to act because of strong opposition in Congress.

VICE PRESIDENT GORE: Thank you for serving.

TERENCE SMITH: Voluntary free time was first proposed unanimously by the Gore Commission, the presidentially appointed body that spent more than a year trying to decide what the public service obligations of television stations ought to be in the 21st century. Badly split between broadcasters and representatives of civic groups, the commission finally brought forth a dozen general, non-binding recommendations. Leslie Moonves, president of CBS, was co-chairman of the commission, but so far neither his network nor any CBS-owned stations have volunteered five minutes a night.

TERENCE SMITH: You signed on to that. Is CBS going to do it?

LESLIE MOONVES, President & CEO, CBS Television: At the moment, we haven’t decided what to do.

TERENCE SMITH: You’re doing a lot of coverage. How close are you to meeting that commitment as it is?

LESLIE MOONVES: On most of our stations, we’re probably doing it already. We’re probably doing it already, certainly in the larger markets where there are major, you know, contests going on and certainly in the presidential races. I don’t know specifically, but we own 16 television stations at CBS. I would venture to say 14 of the 16 are probably doing five minutes a day of this discourse.

TERENCE SMITH: Newton Minow, who called television “a vast wasteland” when he was chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in the 1960s, was also a Gore Commission member. Minow has a far different view. He argues that voluntary free time is not nearly enough.

NEWTON MINOW, Former Chairman, FCC: I support that, but that’s such a feeble effort. What we should do is go far beyond that. We should go to the British system where broadcast time for political candidates is not bought or sold, where it’s provided as a public service. We’ve got a real irony here, Terry. We have politicians selling access to something all of us own — our government. And then we have broadcasters selling access to something all of us own — our airways. It’s a terrible system.

TERENCE SMITH: Political advertising expenditures are skyrocketing. In 1980 candidates spent $180 million on TV commercials. For Campaign 2000, the estimate is $600 million.

TERENCE SMITH: Why should broadcasters provide free time? They’re in the business of selling time.

PAUL TAYLOR: Well, I can make the argument on two grounds: One, their public interest obligations, and one, their journalistic obligations. Broadcasters are different from newspapers. They’re different from just about any medium. They have been given a resource owned by the public.

TERENCE SMITH: That resource, of course, is the airwaves. Ever since the advent of radio, the airwaves have been considered public property. And the federal government has licensed only station operators who promise to act in “the public interest, convenience and necessity,” a vague standard that persists today.

ANNOUNCER: Tornado emergency.

TERENCE SMITH: Broadcasters insist they do an excellent job of serving their communities. They point to examples like the tornado coverage in Oklahoma last May, which they say they gave the public vital information that saved hundreds of lives.

ANNOUNCER: People are headed right into it, the silly fools. ROBERT DECHERD, CEO, A. H. Belo Corp.: We’ve done a very good job of providing local community services, and therefore serving this public interest requirement.

TERENCE SMITH: Robert Decherd, another Gore Commission member, is chief executive officer of A.H. Belo, a company that owns 18 television stations. The largest is WFAA in Dallas-Fort Worth. Industry critics give Decherd’s stations high marks for public service, including their voluntary offer of some free time to federal and gubernatorial candidates.

ROBERT DECHERD: I think it’s a splendid idea. And in fact, we’ve done it for the last two electoral cycles. We’ll do it again in 2000. What I don’t think is a splendid idea is mandating it.

TERENCE SMITH: Decherd, like many broadcasters, argues that public interest regulation is in fact no longer necessary because it was established when there was a scarcity of broadcast outlets; a scarcity that no longer exists.

ROBERT DECHERD: Today in Dallas-Fort Worth we have at least 16 television stations licensed for the market.

TERENCE SMITH: Besides cable, Decherd lists direct broadcast satellites and the Internet among his competitors, competitors with no public interest obligations. Nevertheless, critics demand that TV broadcasters continue to have public interest obligations in return for their free use of public airwaves.

The critics point out that in 1997, the broadcasters got the huge free bonus they had lobbied for for years: The government loaned each station a second channel for the next 15 years or more to convert to high definition and other digital television, the TV of the future. High definition television offers viewers much sharper pictures, shaped like those on movie screens. And HDTV’s digital technology offers broadcasters big new possibilities for profit.

In recent years, parts of the airwaves, or so-called “spectrum,” for wireless telephones and broadcast satellites, have been sold at auction by the government, earning more than $20 billion for American taxpayers. But broadcasters got the long-term loan of their extra channels for nothing. The Federal Communications Commission estimates they might have brought up to $70 billion at auction.

TERENCE SMITH: Do you think the country should have auctioned those additional spectra?

NEWTON MINOW: Yes, I do. Either that or we should have come to a very clear understanding of what public service obligations accompanied a free license — one or the other.

TERENCE SMITH: But broadcasters argue that although the license is free, digital television is very expensive. They point to their enormous investment in new equipment, like the conversion of WFAA’s huge television tower in Texas. The cost per station is between $8 and $12 million.

SPOKESMAN: Our company is spending almost $140 million to convert our television stations from analog to digital format.

TERENCE SMITH: But critics like Taylor say someday broadcasters will reap rich rewards from their investments, just as they now do from political commercials. He plans to publicize comparisons of some stations’ campaign commercial revenues with their candidate coverage.

PAUL TAYLOR: We’re going to spend a lot in the year 2000 educating the public on just how much money local stations make from these races and just how little coverage they provide. And we hope in effect to shame them into doing better.

TERENCE SMITH: As the transition to digital television gets underway, few expect that shame alone will compel broadcasters to open the airwaves to candidates anytime soon.