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CFR Backers’ Next Goal: Free Air Time

Continuing their campaign finance crusade, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) are expected to introduce this week a free airtime proposal aimed at improving the quality of political discourse while reducing the costs of electioneering.

The Our Democracy, Our Airwaves Act — backed by the Alliance for Better Campaigns, a nonprofit group working to increase the information available to citizens about campaigns and elections — would do several things to target the most expensive aspect of modern campaigning, broadcast advertising.

The bill would require that television and radio stations air each week at least two hours of candidate-centered or issue-centered programming during the four-week period preceding federal elections.

It would also give qualifying federal candidates and national parties the chance to receive up to $750 million in broadcast vouchers they could then use to place political ads on television and radio. Those candidates raising funds in chunks of $250 or less would receive a 3-to-1 match in the form of vouchers for advertising.

Last but not least, the bill would make the lowest unit rate nonpre-emptible, by ensuring that candidates receive the same ad rates that stations give to their high-volume, year-round advertisers.

Meredith McGehee, director of the Alliance for Better Campaigns, noted that currently broadcasters are required to provide campaigns with ads at the lowest unit rate, but there is no guarantee the spot will actually run during the prime-time period in which they want it to appear, making the lowest unit rate, in effect, meaningless.

As a consequence, many candidates end up paying top dollar to get the demographic target they are after, McGehee noted. She added that broadcasters, “who pay nothing for their license,” are “profiteering on our democracy.”

A study released last week by the Alliance found that “local television stations around the country jacked up the prices of candidate ads by an average of more than 50 percent in the two months before the 2002 election,” according to a press release.

The survey showed that of more than 37,000 political ads aired on 39 local TV stations in 19 states last year, the average price of a candidate ad rose by 53 percent from the end of August through the end of October.

The National Association of Broadcasters, a powerful lobby that represents the commercial broadcast industry, has long opposed free-airtime efforts, arguing that such proposals are blatantly unconstitutional and not a cure-all to the explosive cost of campaigning.

As the group “respectfully” told the Federal Communications Commission in 2000, “There is no lack of political news and information available for persons who have any interest in obtaining such information. Thus, a voluntary or mandatory requirement for broadcasters to offer additional free time for political candidates is unnecessary.”

The NAB — which argues that such proposals violate both the First and Fifth amendments of the Constitution — is widely credited with placing enough pressure on lawmakers to strip a similar lowest-unit-rate provision penned by then-Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) from the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act in 2002.

“We understand and are quite cognizant of the power of the NAB, but I think what has been shown with the media ownership issue, is that there’s a growing awareness of the power of the media,” said McGehee, who argues that the broadcasters are “public trustees” who have enforceable public-interest obligations. “I think there’s a growing momentum to take on the broadcasters.”

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