FORUM: CLEAN UP POLITICS WITH FREE AIRTIME FOR ADS

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Despite six months of revelations of scandal, campaign finance reform is going nowhere fast in the current Congress. It's being orphaned by an unholy alliance of those who love it too well (and want to reach for unrealistic remedies, such as amending the First Amendment) and those who love it too little (and want to stick with a status quo that, whatever its flaws, had the virtue of getting them to Congress).

The moment cries out for a new approach. Happily, one is available. It lies in requiring broadcasters to provide free airtime to candidates and parties.

A WAY TO EASE MOST WOES

Free time won't solve every campaign finance problem, but it will ease most of them-and it's within political reach and constitutional bounds. Better still, this is a fix that works on lots of levels. It would slow down the political money chase, open opportunities to challengers and might even improve the quality of campaign ads.

This is the right moment to lean on the broadcast industry for some relief. It has just received an enormous windfall from the national treasury-new spectrum space on the public's airwaves to facilitate their transition to digital TV technology. Had the government sold the space at auction, it would have raised an estimated $30 billion to $70 billion. The broadcasters haven't paid a cent.

Political airtime is the single biggest expense in modern politics-accounting for nearly two-thirds of the expenditures in the 1996 presidential campaign and nearly half in the congressional campaigns. Political candidates spent an estimated $500 million on TV ads in 1995-96.

AWAY FROM `SOFT MONEY'

If you put $500 million of free time into the hands of candidates and parties, you'd be able to wean the political system from so-called "soft money"-the five-, six- and seven-figure checks that arrived in 1995-1996 from corporations, unions, individuals and foreigners, and that have been the source of virtually all the scandal stories.

What's a smelly fortune in politics is small change to the broadcast industry; $500 million was less than 1% of the TV industry's ad revenues in 1995-1996. "This would be a speed bump, nothing more," said industry maverick Barry Diller.

Mr. Diller has suggested we do in this country what most European nations have done for decades-provide free airtime to candidates and ban paid political advertising. My guess is that won't fly here-not in our political culture and not in our courts. In fact, much of Europe is moving toward "Americanized" campaigns, allowing paid spots along with free time.

That's where we should go, too. And if we do it right, we can do more than just cut the cost of politics. We could clean up the discourse as well.

The trouble with political advertising is that rival candidates don't have a mutual interest in expanding the market. They only want one more "customer" than the other guy. In a cynical time, the way to do that is not to grow your share, but to shrink his.

One way to break that dynamic is to require that candidates appear on screen-easy to do if the airtime is given free, probably unconstitutional under any other circumstances. If they can't hide behind faceless voices and clever pictures, candidates will be less quick with smears and distortions.

GOOD FOR DEMOCRACY

This isn't just good for democracy; it's good for advertising. For years, the American Association of Advertising Agencies has been on the warpath against political attack ads, arguing they give all advertising a bad name. I would think any inconvenience the "speed bump" might cause product advertisers-theoretically, in the form of slightly higher rates or less available time-would be more than offset by the marginalization of a form of advertising that has done so much to sully the craft.

Political campaign consultants are apparently already feeling some heat. They dismiss the free time format as an "eat-your-oatmeal distraction" that will drive people away from politics. Really? More than the way we do campaigns now?

Mr. Taylor is director of the Free TV for Straight Talk Coalition, Bethesda, Md.

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