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Sucker bait

National | "Free" television time for candidates comes with a high liberal price tag

Issue: "Here we go again," Nov. 11, 2000

In an era of multimillion-dollar congressional campaigns, it seems like every candidate's dream: free, unedited television airtime to make your case directly to the voters.

It certainly seemed like a dream to Sylvia Warner, whose candidate, Mike Rogers, is locked in a bitter, expensive battle for an open seat in Lansing, Mich. But when Ms. Warner saw the wording of the question to which candidates had to respond in the first free television spot, she started having second thoughts about her dream. "Why," the TV station wanted to know, "do we spend twice as much money on incarceration as we do on education?"

The question immediately put Mr. Rogers, a Republican, on the defensive. Education is typically a Democrat-friendly issue, especially when juxtaposed against a liberal pet peeve like prison spending. When pollsters ask such loaded questions, they call it "push polling"-i.e., phrasing the survey to elicit a desired response. But when TV stations ask loaded or biased questions, they call it public service. It's a "service" voters may see a lot more of in the future.

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Welcome to the latest innovation in campaign finance reform. With fundraising spiraling out of control-the price tag for the NY senate race alone will exceed $60 million-critics across the political spectrum agree that something has to be done. Some argue that television advertising is the main culprit. By providing free airtime to the candidates, the theory goes, TV stations would decrease the insatiable demand for campaign cash, and big donors, in turn, would lose their influence.

So far, the demand-side theory of campaign finance reform has been just that-a theory with little or no grounding in the real political world. But the race in Michigan's eighth congressional district could change all that. It seems like the perfect laboratory: an open seat, a dead heat in the polls, two candidates evenly matched in fundraising, and a sprawling district that requires TV buys in three different markets (Detroit, Flint, and Lansing). A week of ads in Detroit alone costs about $400,000, and the candidates will spend roughly half their total budgets on such efforts.

Though stations in other congressional districts are experimenting with free airtime this year, nowhere has it been embraced with the same enthusiasm as Michigan's eighth district. Detroit's ABC affiliate gave each candidate three, 90-second spots on the local news. The NBC station there will start airing free spots later this month. The NBC affiliate in Lansing, meanwhile, is making the Detroit stations look stingy: As part of its evening newscast, Channel 10 has been airing 45-second spots from each candidate once a week since Aug. 16.

The verdict thus far? Both campaigns are thrilled with the exposure, but the experiment doesn't seem to be having its intended effect of reducing the demand for campaign contributions. "It's a huge investment on their part," said Ms. Warner, who serves as communications director at Rogers for Congress. "You and I both know what this time is worth. Forty-five seconds doesn't give you much time to deal with very complex issues, but it's good for building a sense of who you are and where you are on the issues."

Still, neither campaign is cutting back on its ad spending as a result of the free exposure. "It's not costing them anything," Ms. Warner said with a chuckle. "We're not holding back on any ads we might have been running."

But for conservatives, the Michigan experiment reveals a more unexpected-and troubling-outcome. The questions to which candidates respond are not formed in a vacuum. At both Detroit stations, the questions originate with the newsroom staffs-typically a liberal bunch. In Lansing, local citizens posed the questions, though it was the newsroom staff, again, that chose which questions made it on the air.

It was that vetting process that led to the "incarceration vs. education" question, with all its left-leaning bias. And things didn't get much better from there: Subsequent topics dealt with the environment, tax cuts for the rich, affirmative action, gun control, and prescription benefits for Medicare patients. All those issues skew heavily Democratic, while only two topics-one dealing with the National Guard, the other with the estate tax-tilt toward the Republicans.

Despite the apparent bias in the questions, Ms. Warner insists she's grateful for the free airtime. But the experiment in Michigan shows that so-called campaign "reforms" can be every bit as problematic as the present system. For conservative candidates speaking through the liberal media, free ads-like the proverbial free lunch-may come with a surprisingly high price tag.

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