Free Political Air Time

A few savvy political candidates have discovered a little-known federal rule that allows them free "reasonable access" to air their views on public broadcasting stations.

Unfortunately, these politicians aren't doing it to end the corrupting practice of raising money from special interests to buy time on commercial stations.

Still, this novel practice raises the prospects for an old idea: having all TV and radio stations offer free air time to candidates and thus reduce the cost of political campaigns, which makes candidates seek money.

But this rule, allowing air time on public stations, has problems. For one, its original context - a media environment with relatively few outlets for candidates - no longer exists. And secondly, the rule's wording is vague.

A case in point: Democrat Terry Lierman, a lobbyist running for a Maryland congressional seat, asked a local public radio station to run 30-second radio spots, some during heavy traffic periods. His opponent, incumbent Republican Connie Morella, complained the spots sounded more like paid political advertising than "reasonable access" to air views. Mrs. Morella is considering a bill to give public broadcasters a right to refuse political commercials.

Something, obviously, is needed to clarify the obligations of stations and the rights of candidates. Perhaps this rule by the Federal Communications Commission should specify that if one candidate is given free advertising time, opposing candidates should be informed of the opportunity, as well (which wasn't done in the Maryland case). Station managers, however, might legitimately worry about a flood of political material.

Stations already have a fair amount of wiggle room when it comes to defining "reasonable access." A Wisconsin public radio station was asked earlier this year by perennial presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche to air his ads. Instead, the station offered to sponsor a roundtable for all candidates.

That option, too, has drawbacks. It entails a lot of time and effort for a very small potential audience.

There's a larger issue here, as well. The onset of political advertising in public broadcasting is likely to bolster the perception of many faithful listeners and viewers that their favorite medium is losing its ideals.

The growth of commercial messages on public television (lightly veiled as underwriter announcements) is rampant. One airline spot was identical to an ad the company used on a commercial network. Public broadcasting is in danger of losing one of its attractive features: relatively commercial-free programming.

That trend is likely to continue so long as commercial underwriting picks up an ever larger share of the cost of public broadcasting. The alternative, of course, is greater public support - individual contributions or federal funding.

Meanwhile, the FCC rule on "reasonable access" should either be dropped or expanded as an alternative for commercial political ads - but only if it reduces those ads.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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