WHILE THE broadcast media loves campaign finance reform, it resists an attempt to change the way it covers politics. In an era where coverage of politics has become less substantive and less available on network television, it is no surprise that most citizens choose not to participate in the elections process. But if the Alliance for Better Campaigns has its way, better days are just around the corner.
The Alliance is a group of former politicians and journalists who are dedicated to changing the way politics is waged and covered. Headlined by former Presidents Carter and Ford and television celebrities like Walter Cronkite, the Alliance works with groups like the University's Center for Governmental Studies. The Alliance's main proposal is for networks to devote five minutes of airtime to campaign issues each night for the 30 days preceding major elections. The time could be used for candidate forums, issue statements or anything else related to the elections. Five minutes is a short time, but it is significant enough to make a difference in the way Americans participate in the political process.
The need for changes like those proposed by the Alliance is created by the woefully less-than-substantive coverage of campaigns and politics in general. A 1997 nationwide survey by the Consortium for Local Television Surveys found that government affairs coverage occupies just 15 percent of news during an average broadcast. And that's not 15 percent of the full half-hour broadcast; it is 15 percent of the "news slot" left over after sports, weather and advertising take their bites.
When network television does cover politics, it is usually just to talk about polls and the "horse race." Rarely do news shows discuss where the candidates stand on specific issues or ideas. According to a Center for Media and Public Affairs 1996 study, in the last three presidential elections networks spent more than half their time talking about the horse race, and devoted only one third to the issues. Along the same lines, the Center study found that while in 1968 the average sound bite from a presidential candidate was 43 seconds, in 1996 it was down to 8.2 seconds.
What all of this means is that no one is talking about issues. The candidates are running attack ads. The media talks about the elections like they are a sporting event. And the average voter is left wondering where anyone stands on the issues, and how the election will effect her and her family.
Though the Alliance's proposal has found much support among activists and print journalists, broadcasters are reluctant to sign on. Their main argument is that political coverage is a ratings loser, and therefore does not make them money. But the fact is that network television is making so much money off the political process, it can stand donating five minutes a night. According to the Television Bureau of Advertising, stations expect to reap more than $600 million in political ads this year, up from the $424 million they made in 1996, the last presidential year.
The fact that political coverage gets low ratings is not an argument against more political coverage. It is instead an indictment of the way politics currently is covered. Americans are interested in politics, as evidenced by the record voter turnout in the Michigan and South Carolina primaries. People want to hear things that seem relevant to their lives. That is why the weather report is always the highest rated part of the news broadcast. The way politics is covered makes it seem far less relevant to the average person's life. People are interested in what their leaders have to say, but when their statements are cut to 8.2 seconds, it seems more surreal than serious.
The media believes that attack ads and tough campaigning turns off voters. But people are interested in candidates fighting for what they believe and fighting for the office they are seeking. What they are not interested in is the constant polling and punditry. They are uninterested in the talking heads who haven't run for office since they were elected student body president 30 years ago. Broadcasters should just let the candidates and politicians speak, and let the people decide what it all means.
Five minutes a day is all the Alliance is asking for. It won't change the world, but it's a start.
(Sam Waxman's column appears Thursdays in The Cavalier Daily.)