Free Airtime for Candidates
In our democracy, speech is free but communication
is expensive-and never more so than during the campaign season.
This is the paradox that lies at the heart of our problems with
money and politics. As the cost of political communication keeps
rising, the competitive playing field of campaigns keeps tilting
toward candidates who are wealthy or well-financed. Not only does
the better-funded candidate almost always win in our system, but,
increasingly, these victories come at the end of campaigns that
are so lopsided that they rob voters of genuine choice. In the
435 races for U.S. Congress in 2000, for example, the typical
winner outspent the typical loser by nearly three to one during
the campaign, and on election day, piled up a victory margin of
70 percent to 30 percent-a landslide. A staggering 98.5 percent
of all incumbents seeking reelection were successful.  In our
gilded age of politics, if you're a challenger who can't write
a big check to your local television station to pay for a nightly
bombardment of ads, you'll still have your freedom of speech.
You just won't have the ability to be heard, much less elected.
Election campaigns are democracy's crown
jewel. They are the indispensable moment when the "outs"
clash with the "ins" over their competing visions for
a better society. They allow for disagreements to be ventilated,
fresh starts to be launched, or the status quo to be affirmed.
They build mandates and provide for accountability. At their best,
they transform a population into a citizenry-and, come election
day, a citizenry into a sovereign. But when money becomes the
arbiter of who gets heard and who gets elected, campaigns serve
all these functions less effectively than they should. Citizens
are denied the contest of ideas and range of choices that are
supposed to be what elections are all about. And once the election
is over, the public is too often left with elected officials who
are more beholden to their contributors than to their constituents.
This breeds a cynicism that drives citizens away from politics-pushing
the cost of communicating to them even higher. And so the vicious
Our democracy has struggled with this
dilemma for a long time and for a good reason: it presents a clash
of core democratic values. On the one hand, we resist limits on
what candidates can say or at what volume they can say it; it
offends our cherished principle of free speech. On the other hand,
when some candidates can speak with a megaphone and others only
in a whisper, all depending on the size of their wallets, it offends
the values of equal access and fair play we also prize in our
The most promising way to reconcile these
competing values is to create a system of free air time on broadcast
television, as is done in virtually all of the world's other democracies.
Free air time would increase the flow and reduce the cost of political
communication on the most important medium for politics and democracy-the
broadcast airwaves. To best achieve these goals, a free air time
system should impose two separate mandates on the broadcast industry.
It should require television and radio stations to devote a reasonable
amount of air time during the campaign season to issue-based candidate
forums such as debates, interviews, town hall meetings, etc. And
it should require stations to provide qualifying candidates and
parties with vouchers to run a reasonable number of free ads in
the period before an election.
Free air time is not a panacea; it will
not drive money out of politics altogether. But by providing a
floor of communication opportunities to candidates regardless
of their financial circumstances, it would open up the political
process to those currently priced out of the market. And by creating
forums that allow for a free exchange of ideas among competing
candidates, it would reduce the relative importance of moneyed
special interests. These steps would provide citizens with more
choice, more information, more power.
In the land of free speech, we have permitted
a system of "paid speech" to take hold during political
campaigns on the closest thing we have to a public square-our
broadcast airwaves. This not only restricts access to our political
process, it's also poor stewardship of a precious public asset.
For decades we've permitted the broadcast industry to profiteer
on our airwaves at the expense of our democracy. Let's follow
the bouncing ball. Our government gives broadcasters free licenses
to operate on the public airwaves on condition that they serve
the public interest. During the campaign season, broadcasters
turn around and sell access to these airwaves to candidates at
inflated prices. Meanwhile, many candidates sell access to the
government in order to raise special interest money to purchase
access to the airwaves. It's a wonderful arrangement for the broadcasters,
who reap windfall profits from political campaigns. It's a good
system for incumbents, who prosper in the big-dollar, high-ante
political culture of paid speech. But it's a lousy deal for the
rest of us.
As Congress grapples with the problem
of money and politics, the focus of legislative reforms in recent
years has been on proposals to reduce the supply of political
money-chiefly by banning "soft money," the large donations
that go to political parties. Because these unlimited checks have
the greatest potential to create the appearance or reality of
corruption, banning them is a necessary first step. But it is
only a first step. If Congress is to look for a more comprehensive
solution, it must address the need to reduce the demand for political
money as well. Free air time is the most promising, practical
and equitable way to achieve that goal.
Media Reform page