Sunday, October 19, 2008

Democracy Isn't Free, Even for Media Conglomerates

I was surprised last week when CNN news anchor Campbell Brown suggested that Barack Obama and John McCain donate the projected $30 million-a-week in campaign advertising dollars to a food bank in Provo, Utah. She thought it would be a better use of the money. Feed people instead of running negative political ads.

I totally agree with Brown. However, I am afraid that her suggestion may pass as another innocuous statement made in the din of a heated presidential campaign. Her comment,
exposes a much larger issue, one that I have been raising privately with fellow citizens. So let me raise it with you here.

My contention is that the American public owns the radio and TV airwaves. So why not let federal candidates have free airtime for their campaigns and end the need for candidates to raise and spend millions of dollars on advertising? Those valuable resources and dollars can be put to better use by those donors, including spending on food banks in Utah and elsewhere.

If you watch closely enough, it happens about a month after each major election. You begin to see stories in the media about charities running short of donations just before and during the holiday season. Homeless and hungry people in need – sometimes whole families – desperately go without services.

This year the same situation will be easily noticed, as the American economic meltdown will exacerbate the problem and touch many more people. The widespread hunger and homelessness across the country will be harder to conceal.

So let’s connect some dots here and free up some resources to help needy people.

Proposition 1: Too much money is spent on wasteful, superficial, and usually negative federal campaign TV and radio advertisements for Presidential and Congressional offices. The public does not benefit or learn anything substantive from the months-long, incessant advertisement campaigns.

Proposition 2: The candidates’ need to raise inordinate amounts of cash to pay for TV and radio advertising exposes the electoral system to inordinate amounts of influence of special interest groups that are more than willing to infuse cash into campaign coffers.

Proposition 3: The public owns the public TV and radio air waves.

Proposition 4: The money and resources that normally go to paying for federal political advertisements would be put to better uses.

The Fix: The public must exert its ownership rights to the airwaves and insist that federal candidates be given free TV and radio time. In doing so, it will eliminate the necessity for these candidates to chase money from special interest groups. Candidates will then be allowed to address, in detail, issues during various 15-minute and 30-minute time slots during designated times of day, including prime time. The full-scale campaign and free media time could be limited to 90 days prior to the election, thus eliminating the seemingly endless campaign cycles. Overall, the details of the free media plan would be set by a nonpartisan citizen’s panel and the plan would be structured to allow all political parties to be heard, not just the two dominant parties.

I have talked to people about this proposal. I usually get a stammering response. You can see in their faces their minds scrolling through a million-and-one reasons why such a proposal is oh-so-unfair to multi-million dollar TV and radio stations. These are the same TV and radio stations that operate and earn profits through the public licensing of the public air waves.

What part of “public” do people not understand? We the people – does that sound familiar? – need to require profitable TV and radio licenses used by media companies to allow our democracy access to free air time for federal candidates. Even conservatives would agree that democracy is not free, even for media conglomerates.

Eliminating the need for candidates to pay for TV and radio advertisements literally frees up millions of dollars. What could society do with the money? Instead of paying for wasteful, counter-productive political commercials, we could feed starving people, house the homeless, and [fill-in your suggestion here].

Raising this issue and making people, including progressives, debate it is key. It’s never too late to start, either. The next election cycle begins Wednesday, November 5th. The topic could be “food for thought” beginning in November and December while we enjoy our holiday dinners with family and friends. What’s a little indigestion in support of democracy?

-- Rico Thomas Rico


ADDENDUM: The editors at the Lansing State Journal failed to publish my response to the weekly policy question in today’s print and online edition of the newspaper. It should have been part of the “Talk About It” community panel discussion in the opinion section. The question and my response coincide with my discussion above.

LSJ’s Weekly “Talk About It” Question
What, if anything, should be done to make sure political advertisements are truthful?

My response – limited to 75 words – was the following:

We should end the 60-second political commercial. The TV and radio airwaves are owned by the public. As such, we should exert our right to give presidential candidates free TV time to speak to the public in minimum 30-minute time slots. In that manner, the candidates can have the opportunity to substantively address the issues and exhibit their character, including their truthfulness. This will significantly reduce the candidates' need to chase special-interest money through fundraising.

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