Let's Re-think Campaign Financing
Written in 2004, still true today....
There were a number of thought-provoking news stories in today's LA Times. Mudslide in La Conchita. A new budget from the Govenator. CBS firing four for their involvement in an expose about W's national guard stint that still hasn't been proven true – or false. With all this emotion-wracking and head spinning news, the article that really hit me wasn't even on the front page. It was in the second section, the California section. It was an article about the financing of the LA Mayor's race. And it wasn't the article in total that struck me, but one simple line: "Advertising in Los Angeles takes $300,000 a week."
Now maybe there's something I'm not understanding, here, so bear with me. I would imagine the bulk of that money would go for advertising in the electronic media – both radio and television. And herein lies my problem of understanding.
The airwaves in the United States are actually considered to be the property of its citizens. That means you and me. We together actually own the airwaves. Broadcast companies – radio and television alike – are technically trustees of the airwaves working under the supposition that they will be good stewards of the airwaves and work for the good of the public trust.
Now this fact is actually pretty well-known because, as stewards of the public airwave trust, these stations need to remind us of this fact whenever their licenses come up for renewal. That's right, just as you and I have to get a license to drive and have it renewed periodically, so too, do broadcasters.
So here's the simple picture so far: We own they airwaves. Broadcasters get to use them – as long as they keep our best interest in mind and use them responsibly. Sounds fair enough.
Hold onto this thought, because I'm throwing in some back story for what's rubbing me wrong concerning all this.
The focus now is on politics. It's a fact of life in America. In fact, it is the essential component of our form of representational democracy. As Americans, we need to know what's happening in politics and we need to know about the candidates that are running for elective office. In fact, it is in our best interest as a democracy for us to know as much about those who are running for office as possible.
Now here's the great thing about our need to know about those running for elected office. We, as citizens of the US actually own the greatest vehicle for conveying that knowledge – the airwaves. So, if we, the people, own the airwaves and we, the people need to learn the most we can about candidates running for elected office and since the airwaves are the most effective means of presenting that knowledge and having such knowledge is crucial to the very success – even survival – of our chosen form of representational government, WHY IS THE USE OF OUR AIRWAVES AND THEREFORE OUR ACCESS TO KNOWLEDGE ABOUT CANDIDATES TO ELECTED OFFICE SUBJECT TO FINANCIAL WARCHESTS. WHY DOES IT COST MONEY FOR US TO GET THE INFORMATION WE NEED TO CHOOSE ANY ELECTED OFFICAL?
Am I the only one who feels this way? When the most consistent thing we hear about candidates is their fundraising success (or lack thereof), when we also want to believe that the playing field is level between those who want to run for office, isn't it way on the negative side of wrong for money to be a factor?
Some might be tempted to quip here that there has to be a distinguishing factor between candidates so it might as well be fund-raising ability – otherwise, we'd have every yahoo around trying to run for office – just look at California's special governor's election.
The only thing I have to say to that argument is – screw the money. If every yahoo wants to run, that's his/her prerogative. After all, that's what a democratic governing system is all about. Whoever wants to run may run. Whoever has a voice may speak. We just don't all have to agree. And we all don't have to believe in that person.
But there are good people we can believe in who don't or can't run because of the money thing. And there are plenty of mediocre folks who do run because they've got the money thing knocked – because they have drawn the fancy of special interests.
Which finally gets me to what rubs me wrong with how important election-related information gets disseminated. The money candidates need to advertise is enormous because broadcasters are charging politicos the same rates they do to business advertisers. Their rationale? It's all good, sound economic principle – why sell something for less when you can get the going rate for it.
Well, here's a compelling argument: You can sell it for less when you don't own it – and when doing so works in the best interest of the public, who has entrusted you to handle the "it" responsibly. In fact, since the broadcasters don't own the airwaves, political information needs to be presented to the public – for free. That's right. Free. We own it. We don't get the money for them operating the airwaves, so give us some real benefit for their making it rich off our airwaves. We need to know, and it needn't cost anyone to let us know about themselves, or the issues that effect our lives and government.
Granted, there needs to be some checks and balances. Broadcasters need to have time available to make money. We don't need to hear political ads ad infinitum. So let's strike a happy medium – everybody who runs for office gets X number of political ad time to use during the campaign season. How's that for leveling the playing field? No need for money. No need for fundraising. No need for special interests. You want to run? You get your chunk of the airwaves.
And for producing the ads, you get the best in the field who do it for a set fee. After all, what greater call is there but the one that allows you to serve your country. And no one should get rich for just doing our duty. It's not like we're asking anyone to take a bullet for a private's pay now is it?
So what do you say? Doesn't it strike you a bit wrong for airwaves to cost so much – when we own them in the first place. The main issue in a political contest for elected office needs always to be the issues, not the money. There is a way that we, the people can get money – and, therefore, special interests – out of politics. But only if we, the people, take back ownership of what is rightfully ours and demand it be used in our best interest…just like it's supposed to be.