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Critics contend TV cuts political reporting to generate more ads

With the campaign-finance-reform debate heating up on Capitol Hill, critics of the TV industry charged broadcasters with intentionally cutting airtime devoted to the 2000 election in order to force candidates to spend more on political ads.

"The industry not only profited, it profiteered," CBS News legend Walter Cronkite lamented during a speech Thursday to the Alliance for Better Campaigns.

"The coverage of important campaigns goes down as ads go up," said Norman Ornstein, of the American Enterprise Institute, during an earlier panel discussion. The Alliance for Better Campaigns is fighting to require broadcasters to offer free airtime to political candidates.

Ornstein said data from the two latest presidential elections shows a steady decline in election coverage. Compounding the problem, added Tom Rosenstiel, of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, TV focuses almost exclusively on the horse-race nature of campaigns, rather than providing substantive coverage of the issues and candidates' positions.

While voicing regret over the declining amount of political coverage, ABC anchor Sam Donaldson insisted that the networks do a good job giving voters a sense of what makes candidates tick. That task, perhaps, may be more important than extensive analyses of candidates' positions, he said. In-depth reviews of George W. Bush's specific environmental positions would have had little meaning today, given his reversal last week on promises to cut carbon-dioxide emissions.

"I think people choose candidates-those people in the middle, the swing voters-sort of like they choose a spouse: 'Do I like this person? Do I trust this person? Do I like the values of this person?'" Donaldson said.

With Sen. John McCain's push to require free airtime for candidates as a backdrop, broadcast-industry officials last week insisted that stations aren't to blame for the high cost of political campaigns or the influence of special interests on elected officials.

To fend off McCain's call to give $750 million worth of airtime to candidates, officials of the National Association of Broadcasters said that requiring free time won't stand up in court and is unworkable. NAB counsel Jack Goodman said, "Every single constitutional scholar who has looked at this issue has concluded that mandating free time is unconstitutional."

The NAB also lashed out against calls to reduce what broadcasters can charge for political ads, complaining that an Alliance study incorrectly said broadcasters received $771 million from candidate ads in 2000 and steered candidates into high-priced ads.

NAB officials said that campaign consultants buy ads based on strategic impact without regard to cost and that much of the advertising is bought by non-candidates to push advocate positions on specific issues, not by candidates.