Our Democracy, Our Airwaves Act

by Meredith McGehee

http://www.ourairwaves.org/, July 30, 2003


Our Democracy, Our Airwaves Act Introduced in Senate

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 time.

"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 license holders.

* 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.

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