BOB GARFIELD: This week the U.S. Senate voted down a proposal that would have required unions and corporations to seek members' or shareholders' permission before spending money on politics. The defeated amendment, proposed by President Bush, sidesteps the core issue of campaign finance reform legislation which is to ban the large political contributions known as soft money. However the Senate was able to pass a bill that would require broadcasters to provide discounted TV ad rates for political commercials in good time slots, and of course advertising is generally seen as the culprit that has sent the cost of campaigns soaring.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Recently a public interest group called the Alliance for Better Campaigns issued a report called Gouging Democracy: How the television industry profiteered on Campaign 2000. Paul Taylor is the executive director of the Alliance for Better Campaigns, and Paul, welcome to On the Media.
PAUL TAYLOR: Nice to be with you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So let's begin with the Senate action this week. Now broadcasters have been required for the last 30 years to offer candidates at what's called the lowest unit charge, but that hasn't worked, so what's wrong with that system and what did the Senate try to do about it?
PAUL TAYLOR: The system was poorly designed to begin with. It's full of loopholes, and as our report documented, in the culminating weeks and months of the 2000 Campaign rates were going up by 50 percent, 75 percent, a hundred percent, 200 percent and what the Senate did this past week was not only to, to close some of the loopholes but actually expand the law. For the first time it would cover political parties as well as candidates. So it's a pretty significant step.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And it also doesn't allow stations to pre-empt the political ads for higher-paying customers.
PAUL TAYLOR:That's right. That, that's been the biggest loophole over the last 30 years. Stations do in fact publish a very low rate for candidates, but it, it comes with the catch that if the station is offered more, more money by any other advertiser, the candidate's ad can be bumped to a less desirable time, and that's been the loophole that's now been closed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Can you give me a couple of examples of what you referred to as egregious brazenness on the part of broadcasters?
PAUL TAYLOR:Well our report printed a, a memo from a--from a station out in Spokane, Washington to a, to a political advertiser. The memo was sent I think in late September and it said you know about those ad rates we quoted you a month ago. It turns out that the volume of political advertising has been a lot heavier than we anticipated, and we're going to have to change those rates we quoted you. Here's the new rate sheet. That advertiser who had lined up a-- a spot on the 6 o'clock news on that station for 600 dollars was not according to the, this new rate sheet going to have to pay 18 hundred dollars so it was a straight out tripling of the rates. Part of what's driving this is all the incredible amounts of money - hard money and soft money - that have been flooding into the system, and that does create pressures, and Econ 101 says when you get those sorts of pressures you raise your rates. But what the law tried to do 30 years ago is to say you know what -- the public owns these airwaves; it gives these airwaves to the broadcasters free of charge, and shouldn't we research the right at now cost or at low cost to allow candidates to communicate on what remains the dominant medium of communication in these culminating weeks.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Broadcasters say that with all that competition for advertising time, it's the local candidates which are not protected by the statute that tend to get squeezed off the air, and those are precisely the candidates that most directly affect people's lives!
PAUL TAYLOR: Yes, and there is, there is a, a glitch in the law here where can--federal candidates are given better protection in terms of getting access to television advertising time. Meantime, it is probably the - also true that most local candidates, certainly for the smaller offices, it doesn't -- either a) they don't have the money or b) it doesn't make sense to advertise on television. Television media markets obviously are in large cities and they expand across lots of geographic and political boundaries. The typical local candidate for legislature or city council, it's not an efficient buy to begin with. So it's a problem, but I wouldn't describe it as a large problem.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Alliance for Better Campaigns has offered a menu of solutions--
PAUL TAYLOR: Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: -- free time for candidates among them -- not for ads but for debates.
PAUL TAYLOR:No, you're absolutely right! Candidates tend to want to be able to completely control their own message. We've still got some work to do on that front.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you have other more workable solutions?
PAUL TAYLOR:The other, the other solution, quote/unquote that we have is a "broadcast bank" which would, which would provide vouchers to political parties to be able to distribute communication resources. Once again, ad time, to candidates of their choice. Let's get them out of the business of raising hundred thousand dollar checks. Let's give them a clean resource -- i.e., broadcast vouchers, and let them distribute it to local candidates, state candidates and federal candidates of their choosing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well thank you very much.
PAUL TAYLOR: My pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Paul Taylor is executive director of the Alliance for Better Campaigns.