A Political Revolution for Everyone: Take Back the Public Airwaves

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home tv

Trump is the presumptive nominee, and now even this "self-funded" candidate for the White House has to raise billions for the General Election. Not quite there yet, Democratic Presidential wannabe is still accusing Clinton of bilking Wall Street and other millionaires to fund her "establishment" campaign even as Sanders is compelled to bilk his own ardent followers $27 at pop to pay for his campaign. Meanwhile, the furor over Citizens United and the empty slot on the Supreme court left by Scalia's death preoccupies election candidates at every level of government, pushing aside crucial issues like climate change and the world-wide refugee crisis.

The Presidential campaign will end up costing billions with billions more for down ticket races. Three quarters of the funds will go to buy television and radio advertising (even though the web is playing a larger role than ever.) Yet all this fuss and furor is about where to find the huge sums needed to buy public access to a medium the public already owns. Which means there is a simple solution to the campaign-funding wars that moots the divisive bickering over campaign finance. And it isn't anything new.

Every few years someone reminds us that the 1934 Federal Communications Act declared that the American airwaves -- the broadcast media -- are public utilities that belong to America. To the sovereign people. And that the television and radio time our candidates for office spend up to three billion dollars per Presidential campaign to buy and use, is actually already ours and should assure free and fair and affordable elections for legitimate candidates national and local, Presidential and Congressional.

If our memories weren't so fogged by the current American Idol style electoral craziness and the recriminations over Citizens United, we might not have to be reminded that four years ago Michael Wolff writing in USA Today noticed that "almost all commentary about campaign finance is related to the bad odor of the people who spend this money and not a whit to what the overwhelming amount of it is spent on: television in battleground states. Sure, rich men have disproportionate political power and opportunities... But the solution is easy, and does not involve spending limits, free speech issues, or even banning Super PACs. Broadcast television is a regulated utility. It is perfectly legal, reasonable and, at least from the public's view, uncontroversial to require broadcast television to provide free air time to qualified candidates."

How's that for a simple civic solution that will allow Sanders and Clinton to focus on making war on inequality and injustice instead of making war on one another? And moot the self-funding boasting of Donald Trump? Wolff's voice was only one among many. Fifteen years before Wolff wrote, Washington Post reporter Paul Taylor launched a public campaign for free television time in which four US Senators participated, Including John McCain. Taylor testified to the Penn National Commission, "free air time is in a different category [than other approaches to campaign finance reform]. You don't have to reach in to the pockets of the average, everyday citizen to get free air time...what you're trying to do is extract a resource that already exists in the public domain. It is the public's airways, after all. They are leased to commercial broadcasters free of charge in return for a commitment, or a compact, from the broadcasters that they serve the public interests, convenience and necessity. This is an enormously valuable piece of public real estate. And the broadcasters have been using it and enriching themselves for 60-some years now. We are the only country in the world where, during election times, we force our candidates to go racing around the country to raise big sums of money to put them in the pockets of broadcasters in order that they get their message out."

These simple arguments are concrete and tangible. The private corporations that today "own" our public airwaves and fleece American citizens when we seek to borrow them back for electoral purposes are actually broadcast lease-holders who have bid for the right to use the public airwaves in return for a substantial rent and other conditions. One of those conditions should be free access for candidates during elections.

We citizens, rich and poor, already pay for the airwaves when we pay our federal taxes. We shouldn't have to pay again for big ticket TV ad buys that exacerbate the inequalities among those supporting different candidates. And candidates shouldn't have to depend on access to big donors or their own private fortunes -- or on a populist ability to generate $27 donations by the millions. Not every liberal leftist will share Bernie's admirable populist fund-raising talents even if she shares Bernie's populist political convictions; not every principled conservative will be able to ape Trump's rabble-rousing celebrity television antics or draw on a personal fortune.

If the goal is to sideline big money in elections without waiting for a new Supreme Court to reverse Citizens United (which still leaves in tact the even more perverse 1975 decision in Buckley v. Valeo that says money is speech and thus cannot be regulated), then Democrats and Republicans too should unite around the right of the public to free television time during election campaigns.

Bottom line: you want a real political revolution? A real assault on big money? Take back the airwaves that already belong to us and make them available to candidates gratis during elections. Maybe one day we can break up the big banks. And tear down the establishment. And rescind Citizens United. But the best way to even the political playing field right now is to break the hold of corporate media monopolies over our airwaves and, in restoring them to us, restore our democratic voice in the battle for equality.