Take Back the Airwaves
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As the TV pundits on the networks gab about the tens of millions of dollars raised by the top presidential candidates, what they don't talk about is where that money is going: to their own networks.
Money is now considered the single most important factor in our electoral process. Ideas and issues take a back seat to the bottom line. This prostitution of our electoral process has one key culprit: television advertising.
Political advertising makes or breaks candidates, and it takes a huge amount of money to implement a national advertising strategy. Now more than 20 states are piling onto Feb. 5, 2008, as their primary day, including states like California and New York with large, expensive media markets. The early, deciding role of money and television advertising in determining who gets to run for president is secure.
The costs of running for federal office have been skyrocketing. More than $880 million was raised by the 2004 presidential campaigns. The 2008 election is expected to cost more than $1 billion. Sixty percent will be spent on advertising.
The citizens are the losers, and the broadcasters and elite political consultants are the winners. We ought to turn this around. The public owns the airwaves that are being used by the big corporate broadcasters. The broadcasters, like NBC, ABC and CBS, have an obligation to use those airwaves "in the public interest, convenience and necessity." These profitable corporations take these public airwaves for free, then peddle them for exorbitant advertising rates.
We have to ask, as U.S. servicemen and -women are being killed overseas ostensibly in defense of democracy, why are our airwaves, the single most important method by which Americans get information about choosing the future president, being held hostage by corporate broadcasters?
The answer: the NAB, or the National Association of Broadcasters, which convenes its annual trade show in Las Vegas next week. The NAB is one of Washington's largest and most influential lobbying groups, representing the owners of TV and radio stations. For the tens of millions of dollars in lobbying and campaign contributions they dole out annually, broadcasters get back billions in corporate welfare, in the form of legislation that protects their ability to sell ads over the public airwaves.
Some bold members of Congress have tried throughout the decades to end this stranglehold on the political process. Sen. Bill Bradley tried in the 1990s. He said then: "Today's Senate campaigns function as collection agencies for broadcasters. You simply transfer money from contributors to television stations."
In 2003, Sen. Russ Feingold, along with Sens. Richard Durbin, Jon Corzine and John McCain, submitted the Our Democracy, Our Airwaves Act, which proposed a system of advertising vouchers for candidates. Feingold said at the time: "The public owns the airwaves and licenses them to broadcasters. Broadcasters pay nothing for their use of this scarce and very valuable public resource. Their only 'payment' is a promise to serve the public interest, a promise that often goes unfulfilled."
The senators wanted to close a loophole allowing broadcasters to extract top dollar for desirable ad slots. Existing law compels broadcasters to give candidates the lowest ad rate for a given market, but as a result the broadcasters threaten to relegate the ads to the middle of the night. So candidates pony up. A 2002 study by the Alliance for Better Campaigns even showed that stations were hiking ad rates in the lead-up to elections by as much as 53 percent.
Now Durbin is taking another crack at the NAB. He has introduced the Fair Elections Now Act, which would both grant vouchers for broadcast ads and mandate a 20 percent discount beyond the lowest unit cost of ads near primary and election times.
While the public airwaves are sold off to the highest campaign bidders (often to push negative ads, but that is another issue), the broadcasters fail miserably to report on the campaigns. After all, if the broadcasters fulfilled their public-interest obligations and actually reported fully and consistently on the various candidates and their issues, and not just on the campaign horse race, then there would be less need for campaigns to buy ads in the first place.
More than $2 billion will be poured into the broadcasters' coffers in the 2008 election cycle, almost all for use of the airwaves that the public owns. Imagine what could be done with that money--to register and educate voters, to fully equip polling stations with functioning voting machines, to produce many vigorous debates and public forums.
The American public is being robbed by the National Association of Broadcasters. It's time to take back the airwaves.
Amy Goodman is the host of the nationally syndicated radio news program, Democracy Now!