Issue of the Week

Free the Air Waves!

4 November 02

by Walter Cronkite

As the nation faces another election, we finally have a federal law that limits campaign money, right? Wrong!

The battle to open the airwaves to all candidates regardless of the size of their bank accounts has not been won. We have taken an important step forward with the McCain-Feingold-Shays-Meehen bill, passed by Congress last spring. But Congress, under heavy lobbying from the broadcast industry, turned down an amendment that would have demanded that broadcasters give free airtime to candidates.

The effort of the Alliance for Better Campaigns is to find a device, legislative or otherwise, that would provide that free airtime to the candidates.

The battle for the airwaves cannot be limited to only those who have the bank accounts to pay for the battle and win it. Democracy is in danger. Seats in Congress, seats in the state legislature, that big seat in the White House itself, can be purchased by those who have the greatest campaign resources, who have the largest bank accounts or own riches.

That, I submit to you, is no democracy. It is an oligarchy of the already powerful. It is no less than a conspiracy of the powerful to deny access to government to those who literally cannot afford to run for public office with any realistic hope of getting elected.

One of my favorite quotations from our early history is by Thomas Jefferson. He said, "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be." By limiting debate and candidate communication with the electorate, our nation invites the ignorance that can cripple our democracy. In the recent presidential election, barely half the electorate even bothered to cast ballots. And barely half of those who did cast their ballots voted for the winner. Thus, barely a quarter of our eligible voters have chosen our president.

This miserable turnout at the polls is smaller than any other of the world's major democracies and of many smaller nations as well. To a large part, this may well be the result of our people's lack of enough information to arouse their interest in the vital issues of the day.

All the European democracies have far higher election turnouts than ours, and all of them provide their candidates with extensive free airtime. In fact, of all the major nations worldwide that profess to have democracies, only seven -- just seven -- do not offer free time. These are Ecuador, Honduras, Malaysia, Taiwan, Tanzania, Trinidad and Tobago, and the United States of America. Does it make us proud to be on such a list?

In our country, third-party candidates throughout the years have said there is not a dime's worth of difference between the candidates from the major parties. Well, that is clearly a campaign canard. But it may appear to be true if the public's knowledge of the important differences between candidates is limited to what the public sees and hears on television.

Putting it as strongly as I can, the failure to give free airtime for our political campaigns endangers our democracy. This is the essential importance of the Alliance for Better Campaigns' efforts backed by Common Cause. It is our campaign to give free time to all legitimate candidates.

In the 2000 election year, the amount spent in just the major TV market markets was more than -- hold your hats, folks -- $800 million. Those people now represent us in the Congress of the United States, the White House, and elsewhere. What our campaign asks is that the television industry yield just a tiny percentage of that windfall, less than 1 percent, to fund free airtime.

Walter Cronkite was a television journalists and long-time anchorman for the CBS Evening News. This article is excerpted from comments made by Mr. Cronkite at a forum on free air time earlier this fall.

Additional Resources

Play the GreedyTV Online Interactive Campaign Finance Game

Ten Things You Can Do To Cut Campaign Spending

Find out how much New York television stations made off of campaign ads in 2002

McCain-Feingold-Shays-Meehen bill

Alliance for Better Campaigns

Common Cause New York

Center For Public Integrity

Expenditures by Political Parties in New York State

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