ANNENBERG PUBLIC POLICY CENTER
UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA
SEPTEMBER 12, 1997
(As Prepared for Delivery)
DEMOCRACY IN A DIGITAL AGE
Well, are you ready?
According to the New York Times last week, the Presidential race for the year 2000 has already begun. And the key to sorting out the candidates, according to the article, is not how they would close the gap between rich and poor, or build a global informational highway, or promote greater quality and equality of education in our country.
No, the key, says the Times, is how much money can they raise.
Listen to this:
A prominent Republican consultant said about his party's field: "Alexander's gong to have 15 mill by Iowa . . . But Bush will have 20. I wouldn't be surprised if Bush holds his first dinner and breaks every record . . . I don't think Quayle has as much money."
Now I went to college with Governor Bush and I believe him to be a fine fellow. I suspect he would rather be thought of as Presidential material for a million reasons other than his ability to raise a million dollars at a dinner.
But more important than the Governor's grounds for outrage at the disrespect this view shows for his record, thoughts, and agenda, the fact is that the country has every reason to be outraged that the ability to raise Big Money is apparently the primary method of sorting out political candidates.
As another Republican consultant said, "guys like John McCain are not viable because they are not able to raise money . . . Steve Forbes is viable because money is not an issue to him."
I know both these fine men and respect their views on a variety of issues. I think if they want to run for President they ought to be able to do so, without money being a precondition or a special advantage to the viability of their candidacy.
The situation is even worse for Congressional, Gubernatorial, and Senatorial races. And for state races the role of money is far less examined but I suspect even more pernicious because of the relative lack of vigorous TV coverage of state and local government.
All over our country decent, honorable people are effectively precluded from elected office simply because they don't have close ties to Big Money or aren't willing to do what it takes to get those ties.
All over our country people agree with me.
Why do you think the country despairs of politics, and its focal point Washington, D.C.?
Don't you think the number one reason by far is the relationship between Big Money and politics?
Everyone knows that the connection of Big Money to politics shakes the credibility of our democracy. The most innocent and decent people in politics -- and I call many of them, and one in particular, dear friends -- are the ones who most want campaign reform. Because they know how enervating to democracy is today's imperative that in order to do the right thing in public office you've got to raise Big Money to get in public office.
And what is that Big Money for? TV of course.
In 1996, 63% of Clinton's and 61% of Dole's went to broadcast advertising in the general election phase of the campaign. In competitive Senate races over 60% of campaign funds went to media costs.
Millions are raised and spent on TV time buys because TV is the way 70 percent of Americans get all their information.
Being on TV is the only way to get elected to almost any contested public office with a large constituency.
More precisely, you cannot run for office successfully without getting your message to the people by embedding it in the country's nightly fare of popular entertainment on broadcast TV.
I believe in the future the Internet will change this paradigm. But we have got to save democracy in the present and not in the sweet bye and bye.
Let's start with the bottom line:
To reduce to any bearable level the role of money in American politics candidates need ample advertising time on popular broadcast TV shows. They need lots of it and they need it at the important times -- especially right before the election and on popular shows.
The purpose of government, said Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican President and a fellow who was famous for not raising Big Money, is to do what needs doing but no one of us can do so well acting alone.
None of us alone can make it possible for those without the special access, and sad special debts, to Big Money to run for office. But acting through government we can make it so.
Anything else -- absolutely anything else -- that Congress might do to reform the political process will be a flat failure unless free time and widespread, meaningful access to that time is the key part of the solution.
The American public agrees. An April CBS News/NYT poll found that 65% of those polled favored free television time and March CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll found that 64% of those polled supported free time.
The President has called for free time. As the President stated at an conference sponsored by the Annenberg Center for Public Policy in Washington, "[i]t is time to update broadcasters' public interest obligations to meet the demands of the new times and the new technological realities. I believe broadcasters who receive digital licenses should provide free air time for candidates, and I believe the FCC should act to require free air time for candidates." The President said again at American University earlier this week that he will insist on campaign reform and on free time as a key part of it.
Notwithstanding the President's leadership, since the election knowledgeable observers have said there would be no campaign reform.
I've said all along that they will be wrong and that there will be free time as well before the November 1998 election. I'm betting on the President and sticking with my prediction.
I admit those Thompson hearings could make you wonder about priorities: is where a public official was sitting when he made a phone call a more important issue in campaign reform than the inability of any candidate for public office to run for office without raising millions?
But I'm inspired by leaders like Senator John McCain, who told me months ago that there would eventually be free time for political candidates.
He is well aware that the Senate has never held a vote on McCain/Feingold,the principal campaign reform bill.
This week 45 Democratic Senators signed a letter asking for that vote and yesterday they took to the Senate floor to demand action. John McCain and two other Republicans have joined them. The McCain/Feingold bill provides for some free time -- not enough perhaps, but it's a start.
Momentum for reform is building.
In this Congress alone, more than 68 Members have written the FCC in support of free time.
They are joined by the most farsighted visionaries in the broadcasting industry.
Barry Diller said "I propose that we [the broadcasters of America] take sole responsibility for the cost of airing all political advertising messages for all government candidates and to use this lever as the impetus to abolish all forms of the current system of political contributions."
Rupert Murdoch, Walter Cronkite, Paul Taylor have all called for free time as a key component to campaign reform.
The odd fact is that free time for political candidates represents so much to democracy and so very little for broadcasters.
Federal and non-federal candidates spent $400 million total on political ads in 1996 which constituted about one percent of the $30 billion spent on all advertising in 1996, according to Broadcasting and Cable, a trade magazine.
Even the broadcast industry lobbyists agree that free time would be an insignificant fraction of the ad revenues of the industry.
The National Association of Broadcasters estimated "that political ads accounted for only 1.2% of total ad revenues" in 1996. This figure can be looked at in context of an estimated $36.2 billion in TV advertising revenue in 1995, the most recent year for which estimates are available.
Consider that Americans spent $400 million on campaigns in 1996, while Procter and Gamble spent $580 million on network TV advertising during the same period.
In fact, broadcasters could give away free time to candidates and then, by shrinking the amount of self-promotional ads they run (you know the ones where ABC tells you in yellow colors that TV Is Good), they could replace any paid ad time they had lost.
But some question whether broadcasters can be compelled to give back the public's airwaves for public purposes, even in small part, such as free time.
Senator Arlen Specter said recently that he "find[s] the free air time provision in McCain/Feingold troubling . . . I believe proposals for free air time constitute a 'taking' from broadcasters and are unconstitutional."
But other prominent Republicans have focused not on takings from broadcasters but givings to broadcasters.
In 1996 Congress insisted on ordering the FCC to give broadcasters digital TV licenses that if sold at auction would have jumpstarted digital competition against cable and analog broadcasting, while also bringing in anywhere from $7 to $20 billion to the public treasury.
Conservatives like William Safire called this freebie a "rip-off on a scale vaster than dreamed by yesteryear's robber barons." And Bob Dole called it a "giant corporate welfare program."
This huge gift to broadcasters was made with the express statutory provision that this public property of the airwaves could be used only subject to a public interest obligation. That is what the FCC is supposed to define.
And I assure you that if I had the votes we would long since have defined the public interest to include free time.
I admit a disappointment here. I was not even able to convince three commissioners to vote for a notice of inquiry to look into the subject!
I would think Senator Specter, who is a fine lawyer, would have welcomed a debate on the constitutionality of free time. That is what our inquiry would have sparked.
The Senator would have to go against Representative Louise Slaughter, the courageous Congresswoman from New York, who has said that "Enacting caps on campaign expenditures, limiting contributions, and other reforms will be meaningless unless we do something about the aspect of campaigning that costs the most: television time."
Furthermore, she has stated: "It is important to remember that the airwaves do not belong to the broadcasters, they belong to the American people. Placing conditions on the way private interests use the public airwaves is therefore not 'taking' anything away from these stations. The Library of Congress' Congressional Research Service has prepared a written memorandum supporting the constitutionality of my legislation (HR 84)."
Senator Specter has every right to disagree with Congress' research service but at the very least shouldn't the FCC, Congress' expert agency on all broadcast matters, inquire into the issue, make a public record, and issue a report?
Moreover, without doubt, the FCC can issue a rule requiring free time subject to the power of Congress to repeal the rule if it wishes.
Meanwhile, no one should ignore the fact that the FCC by statute and rule for years has tried to guarantee candidates ready access to the airwaves.
We have on the books a lowest unit charge rule. The broadcast lobby supports it. This rule is supposed to let candidates have cheap air time.
But does it work? In July 1990, the FCC audited TV and radio stations and found that 80% of TV and 40% of radio stations audited failed to give candidates the lowest available rates as required by LUC statute.
The audit's "most significant finding" was that "at a majority of stations, political candidates have paid higher prices than commercial advertisers because sales techniques encouraged them to buy higher-priced classes of time."
What kind of a deal is this? Why don't we just change the lowest unit charge rule and substitute a rule requiring a much heavier discount, even to the point of free time, but say that a candidate can only get a set amount of such time. The lowest unit charge rule gives a candidate unlimited purchasing power, supposedly at low rates. Why don't we just make the rates very low, even zero, but only up to a certain amount of time?
In addition to this truly low priced or even free time, candidates could buy only what broadcasters would sell and only at prices the broadcasters choose to charge.
Moreover, broadcasters could impose a surcharge above commercial rates on the additional time. This then would fund the free time.
Other ideas are viable as well.
But in all the history of broadcasting free time ideas have never been examined at Congress' expert TV agency, the FCC.
I couldn't get this FCC to act on free time. Two commissioners stopped our inquiry. But they are retiring, along with me. A new group is coming in when the Senate confirms them in October.
As Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper editorialized in supporting FCC actions on free time, "if Congress won't act, those who can, should."
As Barry Diller and other broadcasters who support free time already understand, to whom much is given much is expected.
To broadcasters much has been given. And something is expected back beyond the entertainment, sports, and news that the business already generates.
And to the commissioners of the next FCC much also has been given: the special responsibility to determine what broadcasters need to do to serve the public interest.
This responsibility brings with it the opportunity to do something truly great for Democracy.
I know the details of a free time proposal will be as complicated as the most complicated of the 1600 items we voted on while I was chairman. But on 98% we voted unanimously, and on all of them we reached conclusions that were well-reasoned and well thought through.
The Commission can do the same thing for free time. It can conduct an open and complete inquiry. It can do a sound and sensible proposed rule making. It can vote unanimously to give us a major new free time initiative, with or without McCain/Feingold.
This is a wonderful opportunity for the new Commission to make its contribution to history. I almost wish I were staying to cast a vote. But I will be waiting for my chance to applaud. So will the rest of America.