Our Democracy, Our Airwaves Act
by Meredith McGehee
Our Democracy, Our Airwaves Act Introduced
Senators McCain, Feingold and Durbin Seek
Stronger Public Interest Standard for Broadcasters
Washington, DC - Senators John McCain [R-Ariz.], Russell Feingold
[D-Wisc.], and Richard Durbin [D-Ill.] introduced a bill today
that would require the nation's television and radio stations
to live up to their public interest obligations by providing voters
with more information about candidates and issues at election
"Our democracy is stronger when a
candidate's success is achieved by ideas, and not by dollars,
and when an electorate is informed by facts and not twelve second
sound bites," said Senator McCain.
Senator Feingold stated: "This bill
will improve news coverage of political campaigns and make those
campaigns less expensive. That's a winning combination for our
democracy." Senator Durbin continued, "The key to campaign
finance reform is the cost of television advertising, and this
legislation would reduce the amount of money in politics by making
the public airwaves more accessible for political speech."
The Our Democracy, Our Airwaves Act, S.1497,
is similar to a bill the Senators introduced at the end of the
107th Congress. This measure amends the Communications Act of
1934 in the following ways:
* It requires that television and radio
stations, as part of the public interest obligation they incur
when they receive a free broadcast license, air at least two hours
a week of candidate-centered or issue-centered programming during
the period before elections.
* It enables qualifying federal candidates
and national parties to receive up to $750 million worth of broadcast
vouchers that can be used to place political advertisements on
television and radio stations in each two year election cycle.
The voucher system will be financed by a spectrum use fee of not
more than one percent of the gross annual revenues of broadcast
* It closes loopholes in the "lowest
unit cost" provision in order to ensure that candidates receive
the same advertising rates that stations give to their high-volume,
year-round advertisers. A study recently released by the Alliance
for Better Campaigns found that in the final two months of campaign
2002, stations around the country raised their rates by an average
of 53 percent.
* It provides better disclosure of political
advertising time bought by candidates.
"Since the dawn of broadcasting,
broadcast licenses have always come with public interest obligations
- and numerous laws, regulations and court rulings have made it
clear that a core part of these obligations call on broadcasters
to facilitate the flow of political information essential to a
self-governing democracy," said Alliance President Meredith
McGehee. "The Our Democracy, Our Airwaves Act is the next
step in ensuring that our publicly owned airwaves are used to
revitalize and improve the democratic process."
Nearly 40 national groups - including
the AFL-CIO, Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, the Interfaith
Alliance, the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation
and Youth Service America - have endorsed the bill. "Congress
has made it clear that they realize that Americans want some control
over the airwaves they own, now the next step is to give the public
what it wants and needs for a democracy to thrive: an equal and
balanced presentation of political views," said Chellie Pingree,
President of Common Cause.
Local broadcast television is the leading
source of information about political campaigns in this country,
and local broadcast television advertising is by far the single
largest expense in modern campaigns. Candidates, parties and issue
groups spent more than $1 billion on political ads in 2002; meanwhile,
the majority of top-rated local newscasts contained no campaign
news in the weeks leading up to Election Day, according to a new
study by the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern
California's Annenberg School for Communication.
"We need to make sure that in the
greatest democracy in the world, our political campaigns are driven
by ideas, not money. In the land of free speech, we've allowed
a system of "paid speech" to take hold during political
campaigns on the one medium we all own - our broadcast airwaves.
It's long past time to turn that around," said legendary
anchorman Walter Cronkite, an honorary co-chair of the Alliance.
Broadcast Media watch