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Stateside with Rosalea: Middle-politics


Stateside with Rosalea: Middle-politics (1): Free air time

Halfway through each President's 4-year term, the entire US House of Representatives and one-third of the US Senate is elected, thus mid-term elections are seen as a way of measuring how effective the President has been in building support for the party he belongs to. This year promises to be a particularly fierce battle because the Republicans need only one seat to regain control of the 100-seat Senate, giving them the trifecta of House, Senate, and President - assuming they hold onto their majority in the House.

Added to this incentive is the reapportionment of the House's 435 seats as a result of the 2000 census - 10 states have lost representatives and 8 have gained them. This census-driven redistricting, which is carried out by state legislatures, has affected not just the number of representatives some states have but also where the boundaries fall within all the states that have more than one representative. As an aside - seven states have such small populations they have only one representative, one of those reps being the only Independent candidate elected to the House, Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Come the first Tuesday in November this year any voters who bother to go to the polls - and mid-term elections are notorious for low voter turnout - will vote not only for federal candidates, but for candidates at state, county and city levels, as well as any ballot measures (referendums) at those levels. Between now and the day after the elections I'll be covering any aspects of any of those campaigns that catch my attention. First up, something that affects all elections - media coverage and airtime for political advertisements.

A little background: unlike New Zealand - where the government, through bodies like the Electoral Commission, has a responsibility to see that parties get a fair allotment of air time - the United States leaves that up to the free market. It is also not the government's responsibility here to enrol voters - that is entirely left up to the individual. Because the electoral system calls for primary elections within parties to decide which candidates stand in the November elections, there's a place on the registration form for you to register with a particular political party as well. Naturally, political parties are very pro-active about registering voters - for example, setting up tables outside citizenship ceremonies so they can grab new voters literally as they are created.

Rather than express my own opinions about media coverage and political ads, I'd like to give you the views of a panel of people who spoke at a public forum on Thursday 12 September in the library of the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley. The audience in this intimate setting (standing room only) was mainly polisci and journalism students, plus some older people. The topic was 'Free Air Time Proposals', the moderator was Jerry Lubenow from UC Berkeley, and the panelists were Jerry Brown, Mayor of Oakland; Susan Rasky, UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism; Dan Schnur, Republican political consultant; Paul Taylor, Alliance for Better Campaigns; and Art Torres, Chairman, California Democratic Party.

Broadcaster representatives had been invited but did not attend, sending instead copies of their brochure 'On the Backs of Broadcasters: The Truth and Consequences of Campaign Finance Reform', which can be found at http://www.nab.org/Newsroom/Issues/campaignfinance/default.asp. You can download 'The Case for Free Air Time' at www.freeairtime.org.

Paul Taylor, who comes from a 25-year journalism background ('Miami Herald' and 'Washington Post') summarised the information found in 'The Case for Free Air Time', stressing how "money has a chokehold on the political process," and giving examples of how it is "choking off and closing down opportunities for people who want to stand" for political office. The biggest chunk of the cost of political campaigns is spent on communicating to the voters. In 1934, the airwaves that the free-to-air companies use were given (as in, "for free") to them on the understanding that they be used for the public interest. Yet, not only do broadcasters charge market rates for political ads (if you want your spot guaranteed to go on air), but it's left up to the broadcasters themselves to decide which races they cover in their news and other programming.

One of the Free Air Time Campaign's suggested solutions - endorsed by people like Walter Cronkite, and embodied in a bill introduced in June by Senators John McCain (R) and Russ Feingold (D) - is to have a system of airtime vouchers available to candidates who meet a threshold of having raised $100,000 in small-dollar donations. "Instead of building a ceiling, it tries to build a floor," said Taylor, explaining that the bill doesn't take away anyone's right to pay for advertising, merely gives some leverage to newcomers to get their name, message and ideas across. However, the bill is likely to be strongly opposed by incumbents and by broadcasters, who are a strong lobby on the Hill.

Art Torres spent 20 years in the California legislature (8 as an Assemblyman and 12 as a Senator) before becoming the Chairman of the Democratic Party here. His first point was that TV is having less and less effect on campaigns, partly because of devices like TiVo which allow viewers to cut out the adverts before they even watch a programme. He said campaigns are moving more towards a grassroots style, and (later) that he doesn't even consider somebody as candidate material who looks like they couldn't walk door to door campaigning

Another change is that the number of voters choosing the "Decline to State" option for party affiliation on their voter registration form has risen to 15 percent in California, while the number of registrations of any kind is down, statewide, indicating a general disenchantment with the political process, not just with the political parties. His opinion was that "reforms aren't effective - lawyers and accountants get rich off the loopholes," and that it won't happen anyway unless people at the grassroots level put pressure on Congress. He would prefer a public financing model.

Susan Rasky, whose journalism career includes time as the 'New York Times' chief capitol correspondent, was keen to examine the bill's proposals from a factual, rather than a political, standpoint - for example, which candidates would get the vouchers allotted to nationwide parties as "block grants" in each two-year election cycle? These vouchers are to help pay for advertising for candidates who need the money most in local, state or federal general elections, and are separate from the vouchers earned by individual federal candidates who meet the $100k donation threshold.

Of the bill's third main proposal - that broadcasters set aside at least two hours a week on or near prime time in the six weeks before the election for a discussion of the issues - Rasky asked who would decide what qualified as a political issue. For example, would a news segment about teenage pregnancy fulfill that requirement? She saw a potential conflict with First Amendment (free speech) rights, and said that if the problem was a lack of teeth at the Federal Communications Commission when it came to enforcing the "public interest" law then "why don't we give the law teeth?"

Dan Schnur was John McCain's National Communications Director during McCain's bid to be the Republicans' candidate for President in 2000, has his own political consultancy business, and is co-director of the Center for Campaign Leadership at UC Berkeley. "The system is broken", he said "and that is not a partisan statement." He was referring to "a non-stop fundraising process that has corrupted the system in more ways than we have time for tonight." He said it was "not fair" that young people are excluded from having an effect by just doing door-knocking, and lamented that "candidates spend all day every day talking to rich people, raising money."

He pointed out that both the Republicans and the Democrats are suing in federal court to overturn provisions in the campaign finance reform legislation enacted earlier this year (but not applicable to this November's election). All the same, he said, people shouldn't make the leap from "reforms don't work" to "let's not try." He didn't agree with the alternative of a public financing model, because it would mean less tax money was available for services needed by "deserving people." He suggested that free airtime might be financed instead by asking the stations to pay a "transaction fee - not a tax."

Jerry Brown was the Governor of California from 1975-83, and he is currently Mayor of Oakland. In the early 70's, when he was Secretary of State, he filed a petition to the Federal Communications Commission suggesting that every broadcasting station be required to give airtime to candidates for debates that would be carried by every channel at the same time. The FCC lost the petition, and it's too late to resurrect such an idea, he said, because "media is now user-activated." He felt that public financing has problems as a model, and he seemed to think that things had gone so far awry with so many facets of the political process that improvement will come only "when the stars are right."

Campaigning is all about swing voters these days, he said, and it's "the people with the least information and the least commitment who are the most available for nudging." He recounted a Democratic political consultant's division of the world into "the elite" (who are interested in politics) and "real people", who don't have anything to do with politics and for whom a 30-second ad is too long. He sees negative campaigns - the ads that do nothing but lambast the candidate's rival - as a deliberate ploy to depress voter turnout. "If you depress turnout, it's the poorer people who don't go to vote." Furthermore, "candidates aren't speaking; they're reciting" the words and phrases that triggered a reaction in focus groups.

After all the panelists' remarks were heard, the floor was opened to questions from the audience. Here is a sample of some of them and snippets of some of the replies:

Q1 - Why not have shorter campaign periods? Torres: Incumbents benefit more from shorter election periods. Brown: Good candidates never stop running. Schnur: Limit the time period and we'll spend the money anyway.

Q2 (asked by a TV political editor, but in an unofficial capacity, i.e. as himself) - If the goal is to have the "public interest" obligation fulfilled, why don't politicians take advantage of the free air time that is offered to them by many broadcasters already? Many actively avoid debates or anything that might mean they risk straying "off message". Taylor: Politicians should realise that "one thing people in this country are good at, is watching television and getting the measure of it." Schnur: I get my clients to stay on message because not all channels are as interested as the questioner's channel is, and the candidates usually get only eight seconds of airtime. "Good political broadcasting is the shared responsibility of the news media, the newsmaker, and the news audience."

Q3 - Do politicians pay too much or too little attention to the electorate? Brown: The system works as a safety valve - if candidates don't pay attention, they lose. Candidates don't even come into this business without fitting into the "Californian" profile in some way: pro-choice, anti-oil drilling, pro-reform of HMOs, anti-gun, pro-death penalty. Torres: Polling is important because it reflects the body politic and that's what a democracy is all about. The distortion in spending comes about because consultants and strategists get a percentage of every ad dollar that's spent. Schnur: Polls can be deceptive. During his bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, John McCain attended 225 town hall meetings, and found that a patients bill of rights was high on voters list of things that mattered, whereas the polls said it wasn't.

Q4 - How can you limit what's spent on campaigns? Torres: If there was a way constitutionally to impose a limit on what is spent in elections, that would solve the problem. Barsky: Why do we think it should be cheap to operate a democracy? More *should* be spent on campaign ads than is spent on e.g. advertising Coca Cola. Brown: Legally speaking, expenditures - unlike donations - are speech so can't be limited without breaching the First Amendment. Laws against bribery and extortion, and laws requiring campaign reporting, are the ways to challenge the present system.

Q5 - Could vouchers be applied to the internet? Taylor: They wouldn't need to be - money would naturally be freed up for that by applying the voucher system to broadcasting.

Q6 - Because of narrowcasting, listeners can insulate themselves from things they don't like; can these methods be applied to other media like cable networks? Taylor: National networks and local broadcasters are still the biggest game in town and they are where the candidates go.

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