THE PUSH for campaign finance overhaul has failed in Congress, but activists outside government have not given up hope. A Washington-based advocacy group named the Alliance for Better Campaigns is hoping to get broadcasters to sign onto a reform effort of their own.
The idea is to have television companies devote five minutes each evening to discussion of political issues during the month preceding next year's primaries and for another month before the election. The time could be filled with candidate interviews, mini-debates or anything that educates voters about the stakes in the election. This would give poorly financed candidates a chance to put their ideas before the voters. The voters would get a more nourishing political diet than they do at present.
This nourishment is especially needed at the local level. A study of local TV during last year's gubernatorial campaign in California found that less than half of one percent of news time was devoted to the contest, and such coverage as there was tended to be dominated by photo opportunities and speculation as to which candidate was winning. As a result, the televised campaign consisted mainly of paid advertisements, whose rapid, hectoring tone often alienates voters. The explosion of political advertising over the past quarter-century is probably one reason for the concurrent fall in voter turnout.
Five minutes on election issues every evening will not solve the turnout problem, but it is an idea worth trying. Some local stations, including the six owned by The Washington Post Co., have experimented with versions of this notion; and this week Time Warner announced that it would stop making soft-money donations to political parties and would devote resources to deeper news coverage instead. Given that campaign money is so hard to regulate, the best antidote to its baleful influence may be a better-informed electorate.