Murdoch's Best Offer

RUPERT MURDOCH left fellow broadcasters sputtering when he offered to give presidential candidates free TV time this fall.

Here was one of the shrewdest of media barons showing a streak of civic-mindedness, deploring America's money-driven politics, and urging colleagues to join him. Step aside Bart Simpson.

Predictably, Mr. Murdoch's gesture was not applauded within the network fraternity. Others in the business pointed out that Murdoch's network, Fox, does little with public affairs and news programming - implying that his offer of free time was hypocritical.

Further, they argued, Fox would give candidates 1 hour and 10 minutes of prime time without any filtering by journalists or commentators - a politician's dream come true.

While those criticisms have some merit, they don't have a lot. Fox is no paragon of public service, to be sure, but that doesn't lessen the value of giving citizens prime-time access to candidates for high office, and vice versa. And a lot of viewers will be just as happy for the opportunity to make up their own minds free of punditry.

Murdoch is volunteering something that has languished endlessly in campaign-reform proposals: free broadcast time for candidates. Such time is common in other democracies, and has long been put forward as a needed US reform. But imposing it on private industry has been problematic.

Voluntary cooperation by broadcasters could be an ideal solution. For now, it may go no further than Murdoch's gesture. But that's a start, and we commend him for making it.

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