Take Back the Airwaves
by Amy Goodman
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
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
Amy Goodman is the host of "Democracy
Now!," a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on
500 stations in North America.