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Legislators announce 'free air time' proposal

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  1. Content Restrictions

    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Broadcasting         Jun 21, 2002    

Legislators announce ‘free air time’ proposal

  • Four legislators announced plans for legislation that would require broadcasters to devote two hours a week to pre-election coverage of campaign issues, and create a voucher system for political advertisements that would be funded by an annual spectrum usage fee on broadcast license holders.

Following passage of campaign finance reform legislation in March, lawmakers are taking the next step to decrease the need for large monetary resources to effectively engage in campaign communication and are doing so at the expense of broadcasters’ First Amendment rights.

Portions of legislation to give free air time to political candidates were unveiled June 19 at a press conference featuring the sponsors of the legislation, including Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.), Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), and Robert Toricelli (D-N.J.) and Rep. Martin Meehan (D-Mass.).

Their bills would require broadcasters to devote at least two hours per week of candidate-centered and issue-centered programming in a yet-to-be-determined time period leading up to an election. At least half of the programming, which would include candidate debates, interviews, and town hall meetings, would be aired in or near prime time.

The proposal would allow candidates to qualify for vouchers based on a sliding scale of the amount of small dollar funds they raise in grassroots contributions. They would use the vouchers to pay for a reasonable number of television and radio ads on stations of their choice. Qualifying national parties would also receive a block grant of vouchers every two years to be used to support local, state, or federal general election candidates.

Funding for the voucher program would come from a tax of not more than one percent of gross annual revenues on all broadcast license holders.

The plan is endorsed by Alliance for Better Campaigns, which has assembled the Free Air Time Coalition, a group of more than 50 organizations including the American Association of Retired Persons, Common Cause, the League of Women Voters and Public Citizen.

McCain said that the free air time provision will let “every candidate have his or her views amply ventilated so voters can make an informed choice.”

At the press conference, lawmakers and supporters of the plan stressed that the public owns the airwaves and broadcasters have been granted free licenses upon the condition that they serve the public interest. Citing a recent study of debate coverage by the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate (CSAE), Feingold said that broadcasters’ promise to meet public interest standards often goes unfulfilled.

“Broadcasters have become the leading cause of the high cost of modern politics,”said Paul Taylor, president of the Alliance for Better Campaigns “They gouge candidates on ad rates while they cut back on serious campaign coverage.”

In response to the CSAE study that indicated 63 percent of major office debates were not televised, the National Association of Broadcasters issued a statement June 19 refuting the report as factually incorrect. It provided details of the actual debate coverage in the ten states that CSAE surveyed.

Broadcasters are likely to oppose the legislation, contending that it violates their First Amendment rights and subjects them to content-based restrictions. Last year the NAB was successful in defeating a proposal by Torricelli that would have required broadcasters to sell air time to candidates at low rates.

JLW


© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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