Selected Skirmishes: Must Scream TV

The hidden costs of free television time for politicians


Well, wasn't that special. Election '96, of course. You must feel zesty and minty fresh. Because this campaign cycle was new and improved: All five major TV networks gave free time to Bill Clinton and Bob Dole.

This was the genius innovation put forth by America's best and brightest. The noble notion was to give each candidate for High Public Office a straight shot–no gimmicks–at the concerned citizens of America.

The results are now in, and they are just shocking. It turns out that, when politicians come on the screen, Americans exhibit the hand-speed of Sugar Ray Leonard grabbing for their remotes. Even those sluggish souls unable to escape the two-minute colloquies remain public policy-malnourished.

The media critic for TheNew York Times, Walter Goodman, offers this definitive post-election analysis: "This year's efforts at obtaining free television time for Bill Clinton and Mr. Dole, albeit welcome in principle, proved limp in practice."

So much for the policy's failure to promote truth and civility in our public discourse. Let us turn to why the scheme ever made it into the world in the first place.

What kind of a "welcome" principle inanely tosses out reforms without a wisp of analysis of the possibility that something that sounds good will actually prove "limp in practice"? Indeed, the promoters of the scheme themselves knew that people would instinctively tune out the boring mini-speeches; that is why they flacked loudly for "roadblocks"–times at which all broadcast nets would air Clinton or Dole simultaneously.

I submit that what is wrong with our politics cannot be fixed by giving politicians more pontificational leeway. What must be brought to bear is sharper scrutiny of just those folks who bother us with such reforms as free time for political candidates.

This very free-time proposal is life imitating sleazy politics. The plan in question sprouted wings only when the newest American patriot, Rupert Murdoch, signed on, volunteering his Fox TV (the fourth network). The pledge was denounced by Murdoch's network competitors as the most cynical sort of ploy–but they were soon forced to match him.

The reason? Well, in a phrase, free political time–the right to transmit digital television signals for free, for a very long time, all due to political clout. This is the notorious "giveaway" of new licenses for High Definition Television, an in-kind contribution of $10 billion to $40 billion to TV investors, according to Congressional Budget Office projections. Don't bother tuning in for discussion of this massive subsidy on broadcast TV, though; an inability to speak on this particular topic is just one of the debilitating aspects of corporate welfare dependency.

Happily, there are things that we can do to improve our political discourse; sadly, they all take a minimum of three-to-five minutes of reflection. One effort would be for the major news organizations to simply hire better reporters–including experts in science, economics, medicine, etc.–to check the pols' rants. Goodman's New York Times is apparently unable to find a single reporter in America who can count to four. This deficiency was spotted in their election-eve coverage of the news that the federal budget deficit had fallen to just $107 billion–a drop of 63 percent–from $290 billion in 1992. In a special analysis piece, they attributed this four-year record to the Clinton administration when, in fact, the $107 billion deficit occurred in Clinton's third budget. Fiscal year 1993, which began on October 1, 1992, was George Bush's last budget; the Times erroneously counted it as Clinton's first. Of the $183 billion drop in the deficit over four years, over 75 percent was achieved either in Bush's final budget or the GOP Congress's first budget. Working for two years with a Democratic Congress, Clinton's budget deficit fell only $45 billion. A small point, perhaps–but one that Bill Clinton pounded home during his "free TV time"–without challenge from (inexplicably) Bob Dole or (lazily) the national press.

Alas, there is a policy solution to our travail: more news competition. The very fellas who champion a cause devoid of results are reliably part of the resistance to market solutions that actually work. Such marvels as C-SPAN were actively suppressed by the bluebloods of communications policy–most notably and directly by President Kennedy's highly-feted FCC chairman, Newton Minow, the regulator who began an anti-cable campaign lasting most of 20 years.

True to form, today's rush to enact free TV time for candidates is only the icing on a poisonously anti-competitive cake. If instead of the political fix now in for HDTV licenses, we were to open up the TV band for all the wireless traffic it could accommodate, we would unleash an electronic explosion: scores of new (digital) TV stations and a plethora of innovations, including high-speed Internet access. The volcanic combustion of competitive entry would hurl new media conduits instantly within the consumer's reach. Speech would be cheaper, debate more robust, and citizens wouldn't even have to be herded up with TV "roadblocks" to become informed.

When the free-time folks figure this out, they will be far more useful participants in the democratic process. And we won't have to rely on a vacuous two-minute monologue by a presidential candidate to figure out why.