by Bill Kraus & Jack DeWitt
January 24, 2000
Madison - As the campaign contributions flow and the candidate war chests grow for the 2000 elections, we write to voice a concern about - and offer a remedy for - the increasingly harmful role of TV in politics.
Think of it this way: What if the airlines said the kinds of things about their competitors in their advertising campaigns that politicians say about each other in their ads?
Our guess is that everyone would think twice about flying again.
Thanks in large part to the repulsive nature of 30-second political ads, more and more voters are having second thoughts about going to the polls. And, the grubby task of raising huge sums of money for ads along with the prospect of having your reputation dragged through the mud is leading more and more citizens to take a pass on running for office. (In 1970, every legislative incumbent in Wisconsin faced major party opposition; in 1998 legislative races, 52% of incumbents were unopposed).
TV ads are the junk food of politics. Citizens have had their fill, but they are about to be force-fed another heaping helping. More than one million political ads are expected to run across the country this year at a cost likely to approach $600 million.
Not only is the substance (or lack thereof) of the ads nauseating, but so is the money chase required to pay for them. That money chase does incalculable damage to the integrity of the policymaking process.
That’s why we call on Wisconsin’s commercial broadcasters to open the airwaves in our state to a different kind of campaign communication - one whose currency is ideas, not money.
Specifically, we challenge the TV stations to voluntarily air five minutes a night of candidate-centered discourse in the 30 days before all primary and general elections. This "5/30" standard is the recommendation of an advisory panel appointed by President Clinton made up of broadcasters as well as public interest advocates. The commission was co-chaired by CBS President Leslie Moonves.
These brief nightly issue forums would feature candidates for federal, state and local office and could take a variety of forms, including interviews, mini-debates and issue statements.
This is not a call for free air time for candidates, it is a call for high quality political journalism. We are not interested in letting politicians do for free what they now do at a price, we want them to answer tough questions and engage in meaningful dialogue on issues that people care about.
From whom much is given, much is expected. Broadcasters have been given licenses valued at tens of billions of dollars - free of charge - to operate the public’s airwaves. In return, they pledge to serve the public interest.
Feeding voters a steady diet of political junk food hardly serves the public interest. It’s time for the television industry to take responsibility for offering a healthier fare. If you agree, call your local TV stations and tell them to implement the 5/30 standard.
Bill Kraus and Jack DeWitt are honorary co-chairs of the Alliance for Better Campaigns-Wisconsin, a statewide effort to improve television election coverage led by the nonpartisan Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. Kraus is a former gubernatorial aide and longtime Republican operative. DeWitt is a Madison attorney who has long been involved in Democratic Party politics.