WASHINGTON — Angry lawmakers said late Tuesday that broadcasters are the elephant in the room when it comes to skyrocketing campaign costs, and that there can be no fund-raising reform unless TV stations are made to live by federal rules requiring them to offer candidates discounted ad rates.
During evening debate on the floor, Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) said nets are “holding candidates hostage” by attaching restrictions to discounted rates, such as the right to preempt. Candidates thus opt to pay higher rates, providing a boon to stations during election season.
“What is unbelievable is that in the national debate over campaign finance reform, this has largely been absent … as if the candidates are raising money because they enjoy it. People are raising this phenomenal amount of money for one purpose — to feed television,” Torricelli said.
The lawmaker said it isn’t right that broadcasters generate so much profit from public airwaves and that democracy would be better served by less fiscally driven political discourse.
This morning, Torricelli will try to persuade his fellow senators to approve a measure prohibiting broadcasters from putting conditions on discounted rates. Amendment, co-sponsored by Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) and Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), is being offered to a larger campaign finance reform bill that John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) are pushing.
Anticipating the move, National Assn. of Broadcasters prexy-CEO Edward Fritts sent a letter to lawmakers Tuesday declaring that the present system works and that broadcasters provide plenty of free coverage to candidates via debates and other forums. He also said there hasn’t been one complaint filed with the FCC regarding campaign ad rates in five years.
“We believe that any mandated free time amendments, including further discounted time, runs straight into the First Amendment rights of America’s radio and television broadcasters,” Fritts said.
Torricelli said he isn’t advocating free airtime for candidates; rather, he wants the present regs enforced.
Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) said elections have become one of the biggest profit seasons for broadcasters. Offering a personal testimonial, Ensign said he raised $3.5 million in his 1988 campaign, and $5 million in his 1994 campaign.
“Almost all of it … was because of the cost of television,” Ensign said.