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Broadcasters Need to Do More to Give Candidates Air Time

Dennis Wharton made me do it. Wharton is the affable spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters, and he’s paid big bucks to dispense hooey about all the good things broadcasters do for America. He prompted this column by his official spokesman’s reaction to a letter sent by Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell to heavyweights in the broadcast world. [IMGCAP(1)]

The letter urges NAB President Eddie Fritts, Disney President Robert Iger, NBC Chairman Bob Wright, CBS head (now vice chairman of Viacom) Leslie Moonves, and Fox chief Peter Chernin to raise the bar — now not even an inch off the ground — by a tiny amount to assist elections and candidates in this pivotal year.

Wharton responded that broadcasters provide “an enormous amount of airtime for politicians.” That comment doesn’t even pass the laugh test. A comprehensive study by the Annenberg School at the University of Southern California found a dismal record: More than half of the top-rated local news broadcasts provided no campaign coverage — repeat, no coverage — in the seven weeks before the 2002 elections.

Wharton also said that “it’s a source of frustration for broadcasters all over America that politicians reject our offers of free air time.” But the airtime of which he speaks is for debates — which, not surprisingly, most incumbents reject because they have near-monopolies of attention over challengers. Of course, if broadcasters really wanted to provide coverage, they could tell incumbents that if they did not accept the offer to debate, they would give the time to their opponents. Or they could use formats other than debates to get coverage to candidates in important races. A few top-flight broadcasters do so. But most do nothing at all.

A little background: A few years ago, I was co-chairman, with Les Moonves, of a presidential advisory committee on the public-interest obligations of digital television broadcasters. Our panel had 22 members, including a number of prominent broadcasters and individuals from the public-interest community. Our task was a broad one: As we moved from analog to digital broadcasting, with its mix of high-definition television and “multicasting” (that is, broadcasting on several channels, while also transmitting data over the digital spectrum), we were charged with asking what would happen, and should happen, to the public-interest obligations that have undergirded the public airwaves ever since they were first handed to broadcasters in radio in 1934.

Within that broad assignment, however, one area ultimately took on primary importance: the role of broadcasters in campaigns and elections. Covering elections in our democracy is a core part of broadcasters’ public-interest obligation. Having just made a new, hugely generous grant of public spectrum — a grant worth many tens of billions of taxpayer dollars — there was clear need to provide discourse and campaign coverage to voters, as well as a need to find time for candidates, especially challengers, to communicate with voters. What, we asked, should those obligations be?

In this area, as in all others, the common refrain from the broadcasters was that they did not need government regulation to force them to do their part; self-regulation and voluntary actions would be more than sufficient. Our broadcasters all noted that in earlier, halcyon days they had a code of conduct that had worked spectacularly well — but that it had been taken away amid antitrust concerns about advertising coordination.

So we quickly recommended a new NAB code of conduct for the digital age, and we had one of our star members, Cass Sunstein of the University of Chicago Law School, draft one. We got an advisory opinion from the Justice Department saying our proposal would avoid any antitrust problems. But instead of embracing this plan for a broadcaster-based set of standards, NAB reacted ferociously in opposition, making clear how empty its self-regulation pledge was.

During our deliberations, we discussed at length plans for broadcasters to provide more time for political discourse. In the end, the message from the broadcasters on our panel, led by my co-chairman, Les Moonves, was clear: If Congress did its part and implemented broad-based reforms of campaign finance, broadcasters would definitely step up to the plate to do their part. What would that part be? Our report outlined the approach: The creation of a “broadcast bank” containing time from all broadcasters, with candidates and parties given access to that time through a system of vouchers that were granted to candidates as an incentive to raise large amounts of small, individual campaign contributions.

Back in the late 1990s, of course, the prospect of campaign-finance reform actually passing and being signed into law seemed remote, so the pledge was an easy one to make. Now it has been in effect for nearly two years, and we have heard not a single word from broadcasters about fulfilling it.

McCain and Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), the lead sponsors of campaign-finance reform, are doing their part, having introduced a new bill — their second wave of reform — that puts the substance of the voucher plan into legal language. Not one broadcaster has endorsed it, or offered an alternative.

To be sure, that kind of commitment will be hard to put into practice. So in our report, we offered another approach: one that could be applied immediately, would involve no significant pain to the broadcasters, and would provide substantial value added to political discourse. It simply asked broadcasters to provide five minutes of candidate-centered discourse each night throughout the 30 nights before the election.

The “night” would be defined as the time from 5 to 11:35 p.m. Eastern, or its equivalent in other time zones. The stations would individually choose the campaigns in their viewing areas that deserved more attention. They would choose the formats and slots; they could air the discourse within news shows or commercial time; they could do a five-minute block, five one-minute segments or anything in between.

We urged them to be creative, doing things like mini-debates, excerpts from candidate speeches, interviews with candidates, and one-minute slots for candidates to use as they wished. We told them that the refusal of one candidate to debate or to use the time offered was no reason to deny the time to candidates who were prepared to debate or offer ideas or comments.

The five-minute/30-day plan requires minimal effort by broadcasters, but if you imagine, say, the seven or more broadcasters in the Washington area each picking five or six campaigns for House, Senate, governor, city council or some other office, then providing time for those races with several competitive and meaningful campaigns getting multiple station coverage, it could be hugely significant, especially when providing air time to challengers who would otherwise be invisible.

Along with my ally Paul Taylor, I tried to get this plan adopted by broadcasters in the prior campaign cycle. Some broadcasters, notably Hearst-Argyle and Scripps, quickly jumped on board, and those companies did many creative and admirable things. CBS agreed to get its owned-and-operated affiliates to do the same thing; so did NBC. ABC arrogantly thumbed its corporate nose at doing anything of the sort. In the end, the CBS and NBC stations performed pretty poorly, providing much less than five minutes a night. But even they far outperformed what their counterparts did.

Now, two powerful figures in public life (McCain and Powell) joined by some top-flight commissioners of the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Election Commission (notably Jonathan Edelstein, Michael Toner and Scott Thomas) have asked more broadcasters to do their part this year through a truly modest use of resources. If Dennis Wharton’s comments are a harbinger, the early indications are grim. And if that holds true this fall, it will be high time for the FCC to impose direct and specific obligations on digital broadcasters — and for Congress to impose a price to reimburse taxpayers for the use of our public airwaves.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.