Editorial: A warning for broadcasters

Mar 19, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Sen. John McCain appears sincere and determined in his desire to finally bring about real campaign reform. But his latest proposal-using a new round of spectrum fees to underwrite political advertising on television-is the wrong way to go about it.
McCain thinks broadcasters should bear the cost of reform, an assumption that flies in the face of logic and free enterprise. But in fairness to the senator, it’s easy to see how he might come to that conclusion. Broadcasters have been less than model citizens in their approach to democracy.
The television industry’s widely publicized and widely criticized aversion to providing substantive, issue-oriented election coverage hasn’t helped its image. Nor has its gouging of political candidates desperate to buy time on the most important medium in the democratic process.
As television gained power in the ’80s and ’90s, the electoral process grew into a cash cow for broadcasters. But the industry helped corrupt the process-and helped bring the wrath of Capitol Hill on itself-by milking it shamelessly.
“The television industry has become the leading cause of the high cost of modern political campaigns,” McCain said this month. He has a valid point, and he backs it up with an impressive statistic: Political spending on TV increased fivefold between 1980 and 2000, to as much as $1 billion last year.
But those numbers don’t help his cause. To the contrary, with so much at stake for the industry, his crusade has little chance of succeeding. The powerful National Association of Broadcasters, which has helped defeat similar efforts in the past, isn’t about to let this one pass. And free political ads are always a tough sell to incumbent lawmakers who like the fund-raising edge they have over would-be challengers.
But broadcasters should pay attention to McCain’s saber rattling. Pressure of this kind isn’t going to go away on its own. The warning contained in his campaign against television is a familiar-and obvious-one: The industry is supposed to take its public-interest responsibility seriously. If broadcasters don’t clean up their act themselves, they will eventually have to face the consequences.