APRIL 2, 1996
TV advertising has become the most expensive part of running for political office. We look at free TV time for political candidates in our continuing look at campaign finance reform.
JIM LEHRER: Now, another focus in our continuing look at campaign finance reform. Tonight: free TV time for political candidates. It has become part of the reform debate because the cost of TV advertising has become the most expensive part of running for political office. Political candidates spent $400 million on TV ads last year alone. That compares with $25 million in 1972. We get two perspectives now on free air time as a solution. Paul Taylor, former political reporter for the "Washington Post," is now director of the Free TV for Straight Talk Coalition. Mike Cavender is chairman of the Radio Television News Directors Association and vice president for news at WTSP-TV in Tampa, Florida.
Paul Taylor, how would a system of free air time change things for the better?
PAUL TAYLOR, Free TV for Straight Talk Coalition: Two ways. First, it is the biggest cost item in modern political campaigns, and I think it's the engine that drives the obsessive money chase that has produced the scandals that we've been reading about and reporting about for the last few months now. I also think--
JIM LEHRER: In other words, if you cut out the need to buy television time, you cut out the need to raise so much money and cut out the temptations that go with that.
PAUL TAYLOR: Understood this is not a perfect solution.
JIM LEHRER: Got you.
PAUL TAYLOR: But it moves you--it moves you in a happier direction on all those fronts. And secondly, if you gave the air time free to candidates, either in law or in sort of public stigma, it seems to me you would be in a position to say to the candidates with this free time we want to hear directly from you; we, the public, are pretty sick and tired of these negative attack ads that drive the turnout down, and I think is a large part of the disgust with politics. There was a little bit of an experiment with free air time in the presidential campaign last year, not nearly enough. Not that many people saw them. Not that many were on the air, but what the scholars found who study them, these are Dole and Clinton presentations of a minute or two minutes apiece, is that--
JIM LEHRER: They're on what, three commercial networks, four commercial networks on PBS?
PAUL TAYLOR: That's right.
JIM LEHRER: And where else?
PAUL TAYLOR: That was CNN also.
JIM LEHRER: Okay.
PAUL TAYLOR: There are a total of about 50 of these segments, as compared to, believe it or not, 120,000 political ads. So it's no great surprise that not many people saw them, but of those who did see them, the viewers said, hey, we like this. We did a national survey of viewers, and of those who saw ‘em, you know what, we sounded useful, we sounded substantive, we got good information here and the scholars who sort of pour over the discourse say when the candidate is on camera you get better argumentation; you get more accuracy. You obviously get more accountability. So, again, I'm not saying that this is a perfect solution or a perfect cure to all that ails our political system, but these are steps in the right direction.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Mr. Cavender, let's take those two main points one at a time. First of all, Paul Taylor's point that it just reduces the need for so much political money. Do you buy that?
MIKE CAVENDER, Radio-Television News Directors Association: (Denver) I really don't. The fact of the matter is that if free time is provided in whatever the amount is, the candidates will continue to spend significant amounts of money on additional advertising, the goal being for many candidates to outspend their competitor. I don't think this is the answer in any way, shape, or form.
JIM LEHRER: What about the second point, that it just adds to the discourse, it's cleaner than, than advertising?
MIKE CAVENDER: Well, absolutely. Any type of political programming will add to the discourse. As Paul mentioned, we provided free time before. Broadcasters traditionally have provided free time in the form of debate and public service programs for 50 years, for as long as television has been around. And I think the vast majority of broadcasters in this country operate responsibly. They understand their obligation to the public, and I think serve it quite well. And I think to legislate this is simply ill-advised.
JIM LEHRER: And that's your complaint? In other words, you don't think this should be part of running a television station or a network or a cable system in America today, that you be required to do this?
MIKE CAVENDER: Absolutely not. Look at where we're at already. We have new regulations in place to require three hours of children's programming every week. The President is talking about redefining public service and having guidelines for that. We have a content rating systems in place. More and more legislation seems to be cropping up. And I don't think that's the way we need to go. As I said, I think the industry is responsible as a whole and can serve its public voluntarily, as we've done in the past.
JIM LEHRER: What would be the harm in doing so?
MIKE CAVENDER: Well, the harm in doing so is a couple of things. One, it's basically unfair. This is a group of individuals, politicians, who through legislative action have been given the right to say to the broadcasters you've got to carry our commercials for free. Nobody else gets that opportunity to, to come to a broadcaster and say you've got to carry my commercial for free. And I think that that's patently unfair.
JIM LEHRER: Patently unfair?
PAUL TAYLOR: Well, this is really not for the politicians so much as it is for the citizens. What Mr. Cavender doesn't point out is that the airwaves don't belong to the broadcasters; the airwaves belong to America. And we've been doing it this way for 60 some years. And the deal with broadcasters is you can--we'll license you to broadcast over the air--over the public airwaves, but you are a public trustee, and you have public interest obligations. And Mr. Cavender complains about three hours of children's TV. The truth of the matter is those public interest obligations have been whittled away at for the last 60 years. We're the only country in the world that doesn't require broadcasters to give their time during campaigns to candidates and parties to appeal to citizens for votes. This is the bedrock transaction in our democracy. I think a lot of people feel that their citizens aren't getting good information. They certainly don't like the money chase that is fueled by the need to raise money. The other point I would make is that the broadcasters are literally on the eve. Tomorrow they are scheduled to get new licenses to what it's called for digital television. If they had been forced to pay for these on the open market, as other commercial users of the nation's airwaves are forced to pay now, it would have cost them by some estimates $70 billion. The broadcasters are not paying a penny. Contrary to what Mr. Cavender says, Congress doesn't want to lean on the broadcasters. Congress is frightened by the broadcasters. They're frightened by GE and Disney and Westinghouse. A Common Cause report just out today said they're pouring millions of dollars into the system to buy influence. They're frightened by the local news director and the station manager. If you're a member of Congress--
JIM LEHRER: He's talking about you, Mr. Cavender.
PAUL TAYLOR: That's their gateway onto the 6 o'clock news.
MIKE CAVENDER: I absolutely disagree. Congress is not afraid of the broadcaster. We don't buy influence, and let me just clarify one thing. I'm not complaining about, about requirements for, for children's television or anything else. All I'm saying is that we keep moving back to this issue of regulation and regulation and regulation and requirement and requirement. If broadcasters in this country were not acting responsibly by and large, then I think Mr. Taylor might have a better argument, but we are.
JIM LEHRER: What about Mr. Taylor's central point, that the license that you operate under is--actually belongs to the public and that you have public responsibility to go with that?
MIKE CAVENDER: Absolutely. And I don't think there's a broadcaster in this country that would argue with the fact that we have significant responsibility to the publics that we serve, but my point, very simply, is that we are serving those audiences and those publics, and we're acting and doing it in a responsible fashion.
JIM LEHRER: What about Mr. Taylor's point, Mr. Cavender, beyond the argument about broadcasting, what effect it would have in your argument you just made, do you think it would help the system, that it would help the politics of this country if we had less political advertising on television and more of this kind of thing that Paul Taylor's talking about?
MIKE CAVENDER: Oh, I go back to the point that I made a few moments ago. I'm not at all convinced that we would have less political advertising. I think there would still be a move on the part of candidate A to outspend candidate B in an effort to, again, maximize exposure to the voting public. So I don't think you would see an end to any of this.
JIM LEHRER: Well, Paul Taylor, are you suggesting that there be a ban on political advertising?
PAUL TAYLOR: No. I'm not. I'm for as much political speech as we can get. I think political speech is good. There is the main bipartisan campaign finance reform bill currently in Congress is the McCain-Feingold bill, and it suggests an exchange, voluntary spending limits in exchange for free air time. That's one way to go. There are those who raise constitutional and other questions with that. I like an idea of a time bank. I won't go into the details, but you would move free air time into the system that way. But I think in either of these approaches you would have free air time, which I hope you would get this better kind of discourse, and candidates, Mr. Cavender is absolutely right, would still have the ability to raise money. They wouldn't have to raise so much. And if you put enough free air time in, you would relieve the burden. Again, I'm not suggesting this is a perfect solution. There's another very important point here which we began to see in the last campaign and we're going to see a whole lot more in the next campaign, which is outside groups are now coming in. And they have become very, very big political advertisers, and they are not subject to any disclosure requirements, are not subject to any--
JIM LEHRER: Give me an example of what you're talking about.
PAUL TAYLOR: The AFL-CIO, the Sierra Club, of the National Rifle Association. They come in and they say, we don't like Congressman X; he's lousy, he's no good. It looks exactly like a campaign ad, but it's an outside group. And while I'm all for roadblocks, political communication, one of the troubles there is that the only people that voters can hold accountable on election day are the candidates, themselves. So to me it makes all the sense. Let's give free air time to candidates. They are the most important communicators during the election season, and otherwise, we're going to see the candidates' voices getting drowned out by special interest groups.
JIM LEHRER: Do you see that as a potential problem, Mr. Cavender?
MIKE CAVENDER: I really don't. Another issue that is raised here is: Where does it stop? We're talking about congressional candidates, but there are all kinds of local and state elections too. At what point does the government step in and say, all right, for the state legislature, you know, we're under a mandate that you provide free time for city council, for the mayor, for races frankly that in many communities may be more significant in some voters' minds than, than congressional elections. And I think that this can go on and on and on. And soon we'll be providing so much free time there won't be time for paid commercials of any kind.
JIM LEHRER: Do you think that's a possibility?
PAUL TAYLOR: No, no, obviously not. The market will only bear so much political communication. What we suggest is, look, about $500 million was spent on political advertising in 1996. That's the $500 million. That's the dirtiest money that was raised. In raising that money we had lots of scandals. It's a big deal in the political system. It's less than 1 percent of the broadcaster's revenue. If you were paid $500 million for free air time, you gave it mostly to political parties, they make their decision. Are we going to spend it on the dog catcher race because that's most important to us, or we'll spend it on the presidential race, and everything in-between--we have a limited amount of free resources; we'll spend it where it makes the most sense. We're not going to saturate the market because at some point the market will rebel.
MIKE CAVENDER: Well, many of those races are no-partisan, so I'm not sure what commission or organization would be responsible for administering this, but again it's additional regulation that's simply not warranted, given the history of the broadcaster.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Mr. Cavender, Mr. Taylor, thank you both.