The so-called "free airtime bill," which supporters plan to reintroduce in the Senate early next year, is based on the noblest of intentions. The road to disaster, however, is paved with noble intentions.
Under the bill, sponsored by Republican John McCain and Democrats Russ Feingold and Richard Durbin, radio and TV stations would be required to air at least two hours of political programming a week during election periods. They also would have to charge politicians the low rates that normally are reserved for high volume advertisers.
More importantly, stations would be required to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in special new taxes on their licenses -- and the money would be given to politicians, in the form of vouchers, to pay for campaign commercials.
Supporters may have a point when they say political coverage leaves something to be desired; a recent study found only half of major market newscasts contained any political news during the last half of September. However, it is not the government's job to dictate the content of news broadcasts.
Proponents say it's reasonable to demand that broadcasters help underwrite campaign costs, in exchange for the privilege of using the public airwaves. It isn't clear, however, why broadcasters must show their gratitude to the public by bankrolling politicians.
To meet their new obligations, broadcasters would have to increase the rates they charge other advertisers. That would be good for newspapers, since they compete for some of the same advertisers. But it would be poor policy.
There is something odious about requiring anyone to provide financial support for all political candidates, including those whom they vehemently oppose. That probably would be unconstitutional. When the First Amendment gives everyone the right to support any cause that he chooses, it implies that he also has a right not to support those that he opposes.
--Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville
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