WDC Joins New National Campaign to Promote Free Air Time As Next Step After McCain-Feingold

April 1, 2002

Madison - The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign announced today it has joined the national Free Air Time Coalition and will take part in a nationwide grassroots campaign to build support for proposals to require that television and radio stations provide free air time before all elections for candidate ads, debates and issue discussion.

The campaign is being launched in the wake of the passage by Congress of a campaign finance reform bill designed to limit the supply of political money. A free air time system would reduce the demand for political money - and in the process open up political campaigns to more candidates, more ideas and more competition.

Our Democracy, Our Airwaves

"The enactment of the McCain-Feingold bill is an historic step, but it’s only a first step," WDC executive director Mike McCabe said. "Banning soft money cuts off one of the biggest supply routes for special interest money. But it doesn’t do anything to reduce the demand for political money. Running ads has become so expensive that if candidates want to get their message out to voters they have no choice but to sell their souls to the wealthiest special interests."

McCabe added, "the next step is to get at the root causes of the political arms race. It’s no mystery that the chief cause of the rapidly escalating cost of campaigning is the price of buying air time. Now that McCain-Feingold has passed, we’e anxious to be part of an effort to take the next step. That’s why we’ve decided to become part of this new national campaign. "

The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign will lead the Free Air Time Coalition’s efforts in Wisconsin. The coalition is made up of 30 national groups - including AARP, the AFL-CIO, Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, the NAACP, Consumers Union, the National Council of Churches and the Youth Vote Coalition. It also consists of scores of state and local civic organizations. It has been assembled and will be staffed by the Alliance for Better Campaigns. The co-chairs of the coalition are Democrat Paul Simon, the former U.S. Senator from Illinois, and Republican Thomas Kean, the former Governor of New Jersey.

"Most Americans don’t realize that the public owns the airwaves," said Alliance for Better Campaigns president Paul Taylor, a former reporter for the Washington Post. "Once they learn, we believe that support for free air time proposals, already strong, will grow even stronger."

In 2002, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign will host forums across the state at which civic activists, community leaders and elected officials will discuss the free air time issue. Using "Our Democracy, Our Airwaves" as a slogan, local activists will also collect signatures on a declaration of support for free air time.

As part of the education campaign, the national coalition released last Monday a video narrated by Alliance Honorary Co-Chairman Walter Cronkite and a monograph written by Taylor. Both are entitled "The Case for Free Air Time." A new web site was also unveiled: www.FreeAirTime.org. More information on the campaign is available there.

The coalition’s educational materials argue:

  • The airwaves belong to the public. Broadcasters have been granted hundreds of billions of dollars worth of exclusive licenses to operate on these airwaves, free of charge, on the condition they serve the public interest.

(A Wisconsin Democracy Campaign study released last month showed local stations in the state’s three largest television markets charged 68 percent - or nearly $1 million - more than the lowest candidate rate listed on the stations’ own advertising rate cards in the month before the 2000 election. Earlier WDC studies monitored TV election news coverage and showed Wisconsin stations devoted little time in their newscasts to candidates discussing issues, falling far short of the five minutes a night of candidate discourse recommended by a White House advisory panel co-chaired by the president of CBS.)

  • The biggest expense in modern politics is the cost of communicating on television. Broadcasters have been driving up these costs in two ways: by raising their ad rates just before elections, and by scaling back on substantive coverage of campaign issues.
  • To fulfill its public interest obligation and to strengthen our democracy, broadcasters should be required to provide a reasonable amount of free air time for candidate ads, debates and issue discussion before every election, as is done in virtually all of the world’s other democracies.

"Free air time is not a panacea," Taylor said. "But it would go a long way toward opening up the political marketplace to those currently priced out of it; toward slowing down the political money chase; toward reducing the influence of special interest contributions; toward insuring that citizens receive the information they need in a self-governing democracy; and toward providing the public with a fair return on the airwaves we own."

Added Cronkite: "In the land of free speech, we’ve permitted 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. Free air time would help free our democracy from the grip of the special interests."

Taylor said that the coalition has no illusion that passing a free air time bill will be easy. He noted that the broadcast lobby has deployed millions of dollars and hundreds of lobbyists to defeat such proposals in the past, and that it succeeded last month in stripping out from the Shays-Meehan campaign finance bill a provision that would have closed loopholes in a 30-year old law designed to require stations to sell candidates air time at preferential rates. "But never before has this kind of coalition come together to press for this reform," he said. "With the passage of a soft money bill, this is the right time to press forward to the next stage of the struggle."

The Alliance for Better Campaigns is a non-partisan, non-profit group funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts, the Open Society Institute and the Joyce Foundation. Its mission is to promote political campaigns in which the best information goes out to the greatest number of citizens in the most engaging ways. The Alliance’s honorary co-chairs are Cronkite and former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. For more information, go to: www.bettercampaigns.org.