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Campaign Finance Reform

10.28.2000 | POLITICS

There is a lot of talk about the jaded voter, especially those in the younger generations that are fed up with a political system that apes the techniques of global conglomerates. Candidates use coaches to prep them before public appearances, so candidates like Gore do not inflate and distort facts, appearing foolish, or so that guys like Bush do not mispronounce even the simplest words, sounding like a dumb hick from Texas.

But a lot of this jadedness finds its source in television. The slandering commercials that inculcate voters' imaginations are so profuse, so ubiquitous that young voters have only one option: ignore the broadcast plugs and disregard anything the candidates say. It is as if candidates can not possibly be concerned with anything they say they are, because they sound like a commercial, like they are trying to sell you something, like what they have to sell is no more important than purchasing a new Ford or a greasy cheeseburger at McDonald's. So why bother to vote?

Campaign finance reform, I think, has everything to do with an apathetic voting demographic. But not in a way that you might expect. The common understanding of this issue is that corporations and "special interests" are contributing far too much money to politicians. The amount of money is so huge, in fact, that politicians have become the lickspittle of business interests, causing them to dismiss the more important social concerns that we think they should attend to.

Though this is a good reason to advocate finance reform, it hardly illuminates the deeper problem of political donations, which is: why do they need all that money in the first place? The answer is television. That's right, television. Candidates for offices big and small will spend nearly $600 million on televised spots by the time election day rolls around, and that does not seem to have people talking as much as they were about Al Gore's connection with a Buddhist monastery or George W. Bush's deep-pocket affiliation with Texas oil corporations. In essence, the executives controlling the broadcast networks are causing a lot of the low voter turnout people complain about.

There is a vicious cycle. Airwaves are free to anyone licensed with the FCC. The public gives networks the right to control free airwaves in exchange for a commitment to serve public interest. At election time, networks auction off airtime to the highest bidder. Television stations restrict that amount of airtime they are willing to sell, jacking up the price. Only candidates affluent enough to buy the time will be seen on television.

Networks have defended this practice by reminding the public we are in the Information Age; that is, the network's old commitment to public interest is rendered moot by the fact that anyone anywhere can access information through cable and the Internet. But the problem is that one-fourth of the population does not have cable and only a half has access to online news. So when Sam Donaldson said in the Dallas Morning News in February—"For us to run long programs in prime time as a public service doesn't make a lot of sense to our bosses,"—he is really saying that the public has to pay for access to political information as much as the politicians have to pay to get their message across to the public. Television remains the Middle Man who always benefits, because he has the control.

This is the deeper issue of campaign finance reform. Much of the money needed to get elected would be superfluous if, like almost all other countries in the world, the United States demanded television stations, both local and national, donate substantial portions of airtime to politicians so that they can communicate to their constituencies. Reform legislation needs to concentrate not on the politicians, but on the corporations that make it necessary to raise so much money. Unfortunately, candidates like Gore and Bush will never focus their attention in that direction. Whoever is elected will expend little of his energy isolating the problems to which there are obvious solutions. Rather, he, and future candidates, will simply waste our time blaming individuals for an apathetic voting republic, therefore making it impossible to achieve real social progress.

About the Author
John Stoehr is a freelance writer based in Cincinnati.
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