Broadcasters beware: If Al Gore is elected president, free airtime will be right back on the table and the fairness doctrine could be back on the books.
During his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, Gore said: "If you entrust me with the presidency.I promise you that campaign-finance reform will be the very first bill that Joe Lieberman and I send to Congress."
And part of what campaign-finance reform means to Gore is free airtime for politicians.
For the past 10 years, Gore has been saying broadcasters' mandate to use their spectrum in the public interest should include giving politicians airtime.
Just how much attention Gore is paying to the issue can be gleaned from a campaign speech he made in Milwaukee last March: "Free TV time can help reduce the demand for [special-interest] money..Every broadcaster should give every candidate for federal office five minutes of airtime a night in the last 30 days before the general election," he told the audience at Marquette University.
That idea was conceived by free-TV-time advocate Paul Taylor, who runs the Alliance for Better Campaigns in Washington. And broadcasters are not alone: "Cable operators should work with their content providers to establish a similar practice," Gore said.
Broadcast stations that air independent issue ads also should have to give the same amount of free airtime to "both" candidates in the race, Gore said. To avoid that requirement, broadcasters would have to reject issue ads.
"I will petition the FCC to issue a ruling that recognizes this requirement as a necessary part of broadcasters' obligation to serve the public," Gore said. To back up that pledge, the Democratic platform includes a call for the return of the fairness doctrine, abolished in 1987, which required broadcasters to provide equal time to parties on all sides of a controversial issue.
And, finally, perhaps the most threatening news of all for broadcasters: "I will appoint commissioners who-like some already on the FCC-believe the public interest must be protected in new ways, in light of new threats facing it," Gore said.
In its current incarnation, campaign-finance reform is a fight to get the huge sums of hardly traceable corporate money out of campaigns, or at least make the funds traceable. But broadcasters remember well that campaign-finance reform used to include a plank that would require them to give politicians free airtime. Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) were pushing the idea in early 1997 in a broad campaign-finance-reform bill, but removed the free airtime provision when it became clear that broadcasters had the muscle to keep it from getting through Congress.. The Clinton administration has promoted the plan several times, to no avail.
But Gore, who is now polling ahead of Texas Governor George W. Bush in the race for the presidency, has never forgotten free airtime. He was gung-ho enough on the idea that the White House formed the Presidential Advisory Commission on the public-interest obligations of digital broadcasters-a group formed mostly of liberals who strongly supported free airtime.
But, the so-called Gore Commission merely said that broadcasters should be encouraged to voluntarily offer five minutes a night of free airtime in the 30 nights leading up to an election.