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Dollars and Sense

President Bush is off and running. Last Tuesday, he hosted 2,000 of the faithful at a $2,000-a-head fundraiser in New York City, quickly raising another $4 million for his reelection bid. It was one in a series of such events aimed at raising $20 million over two weeks and serving notice on Democrats that they are not in the same fat-cat–squeezing league.

Much of the money is going straight into the campaign war chest. The Bush handlers have decided to go cheap and eschew fancy black-tie dinners. In New York, guests had to make do with drinks and hors d'oeuvres. A week earlier, in Washington, all they got were hot dogs, hamburgers and nachos, along with the usual political pablum.

By Election Day 2004, Bush organizers believe, they will have raised $170 million, $70 million more than in 2000.

This is, of course, good news for broadcasters. Much of that money will wind up in the coffers of TV stations in key states. The Democratic candidates will also spend heavily in spot TV, though certainly not on the same scale. Plus, many stations will benefit from contentious senatorial and gubernatorial races.

All told, it should be another record year for political-ad spending. According to CMR/MediaWatch, the current record—for 2002—is $700 million. If the 2004 spending doesn't blow by that number, broadcasters will be surprised. Some are suggesting that their total take may approach $1 billion. Democrat presidential hopeless ... er, hopeful Howard Dean has kicked off the spending, pouring $300,000 into Iowa stations a full six months ahead of the caucus voting.

All this talk about mixing money, politics and TV drives some people nuts. They are the ones who believe that TV is the heroin of elective politics, demanding ever-increasing amounts of cash from candidates who will do anything to get it.

To enforce their brand of political temperance, they would drastically limit campaign contributions and force TV stations to make free time available to candidates for what they call "political discourse" and most see as a signal to surf.

I'm skeptical of wonk-shop remedies. They are often ineffective, circumvented or counterproductive. Limits on political contributions also raise First Amendment concerns.

This magazine has long held that the government should not be telling any broadcast station what to do with its airtime any more than it should be telling The Washington Post
what to do with its space. Imagine a law forcing the Post to turn over pages to candidates. (And the Post
is more of a monopoly than any TV station in the country can hope to be.)

I would like to add one more argument for not meddling in campaign financing and TV campaigning. Those hundreds of millions of political-ad dollars are a powerful incentive for TV stations to do great local news.

According to Hearst-Argyle Television's Kathleen Keefe, political advertisers hunt a demo that no one else does: men and women 35-plus who voted in the last election. Their watering hole, says Keefe, is in and around newscasts. No great revelation: News junkies and political activists are the same animal.

Keefe also confirms that the money tends to flow to the No. 1 news stations first. Sometimes there is enough political money coming into a market to sate every station; sometimes not. The only way a station can guarantee that it is to be first in line is to make sure it is on top of the ratings heap all the time, even during those long stretches when there's not a candidate in sight.

So this is how the marketplace works: If a station does great news year round, it will be rewarded every other year with a pile of political-ad dollars, no strings attached.

Doesn't sound so terrible to me. Reformers look at it and see the end of our republic. If they have their way, candidates will have less to spend, stations will lose revenue, and newscasts will suffer. And those 30-second campaign spots that everybody reviles will be replaced by candidate forums that nobody watches.

There is one reform I would like to see, however. We need a law that guarantees that every American who plunks down two grand at a political fundraiser gets a sit-down meal with cloth napkins and silverware worth stealing. Call John McCain today: 202-224-2235.

Jessell may be reached at