For-free airtime

As we enter the heart of election season, the airwaves are filled with political advertisements. Unfortunately, many of these will be negative ads that often serve only to obscure the real choices between the candidates and parties.

And when it comes to advertising, volume, not just content, matters. Here the Republicans enjoy a dramatic advantage in terms of fundraising, as they have in the past. Indeed, The New York Times reported on Sept. 17 that "the financial advantage held by the Republican National Committee over its Democratic counterpart could help [Bush] win the toss-up states."

It is pretty plain that the best interests of democracy are served when candidates try to persuade voters to adopt their views, instead of trying to conceal the real choices presented by the two parties.

In this election, more than any other yet held, local television broadcasters have the power either to add to the obfuscation or to clarify the differences between candidates. In other words, broadcasters can, if they choose, serve democracy by permitting voters, not ad agencies, to choose the country's policies.

Broadcasters have never played a more critical role in informing voters about the stands of candidates. That is why, for instance, Vice President Gore insisted on having at least three debates on all broadcast channels at the same time. In an era of fractionated audiences, only broadcasters have the ability to reach 100% of households at a time.

Another testament to broadcasters' power over the electoral process is that broadcasters have never received so much money for paid advertising. Estimates are that, from all candidates for all elections, broadcasters will take in more than $600 million-40% more than in the 1996 election. About 90% of the money will go to local broadcasters.

Broadcasters also have a legal duty to serve the "public interest" in return for having received their licenses for free from the government-as opposed to those who had to buy mobile-communications licenses at auctions raising more than $10 billion in the past five years. One way to serve the "public interest" is to make sure that the parties debate the issues. There are two ways:

1) Offer in every local market an opportunity for debate between the major candidates for Congress and the Senate. Many local TV stations already hold debates. But not all agree to show the debates on all channels, and in some markets, broadcasters leave this job to cable channels, which simply don't reach the same size audience. Broadcasters should hold such local debates and should work together to make sure they air simultaneously on all broadcast channels. Debates are the best way to clarify the differences between candidates on issues.

2) Give the presidential, senatorial and congressional candidates five minutes of advertising time each, usable within the last 30 days before the election. There should be one condition: The time can be used only by the candidate speaking directly to the camera. Under this circumstance, it is highly unlikely that a candidate will be tempted to distort the opponent's record on an issue; rebuttal is too easy and too devastating.

Neither of these ideas is new. But in no previous election has it been more important for broadcasters to help voters understand the real differences between candidates. And in no previous election have broadcasters received so much money; it is both right and time for them to give back to our democracy the two kinds of free time asked for here.