30 seconds of trash: If we can't regulate political ads, we should ban them entirely

We've tried (and failed) to regulate political ad money. It's time we ban short political ads altogether – getting us back to the First Amendment's free marketplace of ideas, not bumper-sticker slander.

Today’s the end, we hope, of a campaign season so saturated with mud-slinging and negative ads on every broadcast outlet possible that some are calling it the most vitriolic and uncivil in history. While the rancor level might be debatable, there is no doubt this election is the most expensive campaign season of all time. Conservative estimates put total spending at more than $3.7 billion – nearly double the annual gross domestic product of the tourism and off-shore banking haven of Aruba.

Money, of course, is too powerful in American politics. Though everyone today is blaming the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (FEC) ruling earlier this year by the Supreme Court, money was too powerful long before the high court decision allowing corporations to fund political broadcasts.

The high court’s ruling underlines the fact that no matter what we do to try to control campaign finance, it fails. Maybe the court is actually providing America a chance to produce campaign reform that throws out the need for so much money by eliminating 30 and 60-second political ads altogether, rather than just trying to regulate their funding. Such a concept may seem radical, but maybe America has reached the breaking point.

Money, power, loopholes

Consider that the GOP candidate for California governor, Meg Whitman, is outspending her opponent 10 to 1, including putting $95 million of her own money into broadcast advertising.

Consider that despite blasting the Chamber of Commerce for alleged use of foreign funds, President Obama and the Democrats are raking in millions themselves from political action committees (PACs) linked to foreign companies. In spite of all the partisan finger-pointing, both sides have benefited from the unrestricted corporate and union money funneled to their campaigns.

If history is any indication – and it is – by the time the ink is dry on our next attempt to reform campaign financing, the money pouring through its loopholes will resemble Noah’s flood.

The terms “soft money,” “527 groups,” “PACs” and a host of others, after all, grew from previous attempts to control giving.

Consider how the Congressional Black Caucus side-stepped campaign financing restrictions before the Citizens United decision – with negligible charity work through their Black Caucus Foundation.

The New York Times reported that, to lure money from General Motors, Wal-Mart, AT&T, and Coca-Cola, The Black Caucus Foundation “spent more on the caterer for its signature legislative dinner and conference – nearly $700,000 for an event one organizer called ‘Hollywood on the Potomac’ – than it gave out in scholarships” in all of 2008.

From 2004 to 2008, federal tax records show that the Congressional Black Caucus took in at least $55 million from big corporations.

Or consider the reform to stop foreign money. To handle political dollars from out-of-country firms, Democrats introduced bills to ban money from any company with more than five percent foreign stockholders.

But imagine the Federal Election Commission determining the nationalities of two or three hundred thousand ever-changing stockholders.

A chance to wipe the slate clean

Through Citizens United v. FEC, the court is actually giving us the chance to return power to intelligent discussion. Instead of asking politicians (whose interests in reform may never be fully sincere) to control campaign finance, and rather than trying, and failing, to stop incoming money, perhaps the court is providing us the opportunity to throw political ads out the window altogether.

Check out The 10 Weirdest Political Ads of 2010

We can shut down 30 and 60-second trash, rather than trying to regulate it. We can control the need for campaign dollars, rather than their collection. How? By banning all political “spots” from broadcast and cable – anything that uses the “public air waves” in any way – we would force politicians and their supporters to substantiate their campaigns beyond the scalding, manipulative speech of emotional political ads.

And in that vacuum, free from the bankrolled theatrics, citizens would turn to thoughtful dialogue on candidates’ platforms.

Political speech can be regulated

The proposal may seem unconstitutional, but Congress has been controlling air-wave speech with Supreme Court approval since the Federal Radio Act of 1927. Throughout our history, the Supreme Court has consistently ruled that political speech can be controlled as long as all political speech is controlled. “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech” has never been held to be absolute. Even the Constitution defines libel, an obvious violation of the right to free speech.

Called “time, place and manner” restrictions, the Court’s existing limits on political speech indicate a ban on audio and video spots would be upheld. Today, for example, we have “free speech zones” which keep demonstrators away from party conventions; “vote for X” signs are banned from public transit; and anti-abortion protestors are forced to stay specific distances from clinics.

If the First Amendment were absolute, none of these cases would stand up in court.

Issues too complex for 30-second spots

The issues in front of America are complex, probably too complex for a 90-minute film like the anti-Hillary Rodham Clinton product behind the Citizens decision, but certainly too complex for 30 seconds. The more we turn issues into bumper stickers, the less we can deal with them.

I’m not suggesting that Congress ban all political speech from broadcast and cable – I’m suggesting that there be a time requirement of at least 30 minutes. Political speech on television must be long enough to address issues, not personalities. Parties, corporations, unions, and PACs could still spend lavishly, but in lengths long enough to speak with rational – rather than manipulative – voices. With a ban on 30 to 60-second political ads, the need for political money would plummet.

Why? Knowing that multiple showings of an hour film would get zapped by TV clickers, politicians and their backers would reconsider their approach, while today campaign operatives try to get 30-second spots in front of independent voters at least 12 times.

Today, about three quarters of political spending goes to broadcast spots.

The First Amendment's true purpose

Banning all broadcast political spots would force politicians and their supporters back to the First Amendment’s true purpose – unfettered political discourse, not unfettered 30-second slander.

Newspapers, magazines, Internet analysis, and true broadcast news shows – whose reporters attempt objectivity – would regain audience.

For context, voters would turn to long broadcasts, both pro and con, real analysis online, and even the morning paper to discover the social, political, historical, and economic background to policies and proposals.

The basis of America’s First Amendment is that truth will prevail in a free marketplace of ideas. Banning tiny bits of political time from television and radio keeps the unbridled marketplace, while still allowing anyone to say anything he, she – or it – wants.

A ban on spots, most importantly, would return this nation to those crucial concepts of “ideas” and “truth.”

Randy Salzman is a former media law and journalism professor who writes, primarily, about transportation demand management and the American political system from Charlottesville, Va.

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