08 September, 2008

The Joys of Public Broadcasting

Interesting chat on NPR today: the real role of TV in political campaigns and the career of politics in general.

I can't remember who the guest was, but near the end of the program a caller made the comment that television media is the biggest special interest group in politics--furthermore, the single most influential group in that arena today.

The guest speaker actually agreed, to a point. Consider the gargantuan amounts of money raised for, spent on, and raked in by the major media outlets--seems a bit much, doesn't it? Back in the good old days, candidates pounded the turf, speaking to comparatively tiny audiences just trying to get their messages out. I mean, there's a reason it's called a "stump" speech, right? The advent of televised debates and speeches really highlighted the differences between candidates in their abilities to think on their feet, and go off script and demonstrate their conversability on issues. If a candidate couldn't clearly, concisely, and articulately state their policy positions, they suffered greatly for it. Nixon was susceptible to this--not helped at all by his somewhat sinister appearance. One of Kennedy's or Reagan's real strengths was image; they both looked good on camera.

The radio discussion turned to the recent pooh-poohing of Mr. Olberman by the McCain campaign. Word on the street is the campaign went to GE and the MSNBC boss-men and did some school-yard tattling. Read: threatened to pull a debate from the network, thus costing MSNBC untold amounts of money. Quite honestly, I wouldn't put it past them. Wounded pride is one of the greatest publicity tactics of the Republican party, and has been since Nixon appealed to his silent majority.

"Oh! How could they accuse us of such behavior, we love America and they're Communists!"

It's the most evident, and sadly most effective use of double-speak that I see, at any rate. Just my opinion.

I digress. So, what would the ramifications be--political and for the media networks--of some system of public political access, and what would such a system look like? Set numbers of debates televised across the board on the goodwill of the media? Tightly controlled ad content with rigorously scheduled and policed airtime? To be done with independent ads of 527 groups?

It seems to me that campaiging could potentially be done with less money--and less need for campaign finance reform all the time--and with candidates consequently being less beholded to, dare I say it? The Eastern Media Elite...

Food for thought, at any rate.


spencer said...

From an economic perspective, I think we do have way too much political advertising. What we do have is largely uninformative and doesn't actually do anything productive. So I'd support some public system of campaigning.

On the other hand, can you really prevent a person from exercising free speech? If I want to declare my support for Obama on the public square, I can do so. Then it doesn't seem so bad if I want to distribute leaflets declaring that support. But leaflets are not so different from putting an ad in the town paper...or a national paper. And from there it's only a short step to advertising on television. And from there to forming a group that raises money to put ads on television.

Where will you draw the line between "just enough" free speech and "too much" free speech?

Cassady said...

Fair enough. I see the free speech issues a little more clearly now. Perhaps this could be the kind of situation where people are willing to give up a little bit of freedom for some benefit, i.e. not having to suffer through all of this bullshit that clouds what really matters.

All people would have to do is supress the urge go out and independently try to slam a candidate or promote another--something that I feel few people (in the local scene) are qualified to do in any truly informed manner. But I could be wrong about that too.

I mean, there are a lot of people out there who are very well-informed and pay close attention to the necessary channels of information on things that matter: voting records, foreign policy, etc.

Maybe the restriction wouldn't have to extend to the public, but those anouncements could be marked clearly as independent and not associated with any campaign. I understand in the small intellectual gap between what I proposed and censorship. What I envision is more of a system of public financing for media time.

I was just intrigued that the discussion was opened at all.

Elliot said...

I also in theory support some sort of public financing. But with Presidential campaigns in particular (because the amount of money involved is more, the stakes are higher, more people want to comment one way or the other) it is more problematic to try and regulate spending or otherwise level the playing field than, say, in congressional races.

Also, the problem is less pronounced once you're at the presidential level. While the RNC can outraise the DNC, the Democrats can raise plenty of money themselves and they have lots of 527s (like unions) and PACs ready and willing to go head to head with Republican big spenders.

To those who say that the problem is not that one party has more money than the other, but that such vast sums are being spent in the first place, I say: The problem is not the amount of money being spent. Compared with the US economy at large (or the operating budget of a similar sized company) what the campaigns are spending is not excessive. The problem is not the amount, but the extent to which small but rich minorities are distorting public policy away from the public interest.

And in that sense, the money race has much more of a negative effect on our political choices on the low, local end, where candidates who don't ALREADY have lots of money at their disposal can't compete in a primary or whathaveyou. It's at the mayoral level, the state senate and the congressional levels that candidates not backed by wealthy interests get weeded out -- and where relatively non-intrusive measures like matching funds could do a lot of good.