October 21, 2014

Look No Further, Media Outlets

In yesterday's post, I offered up five things that political candidates can do to help get some of the money, particularly outside money, out of campaigns.

They say they want to do this, but struggle with how to go about it, or can only offer up putting more money - our tax dollars - into the process. However, if the goals are to empower voters in the district up for grabs, and reduce the stranglehold that special interest and political parties have on our elective process, we need less money in the mix, not more.

While a courageous candidate should be able to do the five things, they have to want to be honest and ethical and accountable more than they want to be elected.  They have to be willing to buck the system, and I appreciate that's not easy, particularly if their opponent doesn't take the same path.

It also won't be easy without some significant cooperation from the media. Republican John Katko, who's in a close battle against incumbent Dan Maffei in my district, put it in perspective when he allowed that
I think it's very troubling to see the amount of money it takes to run for Congress. It puts a challenger at a distinct disadvantage.
Katko is absolutely right. It's particularly hard for challengers, whether they're newcomers to politics or veterans, to raise enough money from within the district to pay for ads, signs, billboards, and the rest. That's why it's so easy to take help from the special interests, party committees, unions, PACs and deep-pocketed individual donors.

I'm convinced that a level playing field that favors the voters but does not hinder either of the candidates is possible; here are four things that television and radio stations, newspapers and outdoor advertising companies, and online outlets can do:

(1) Set aside free time or space during the primary and the general election season for political advertising. TV and radio stations would determine the number of minutes that will be available for each candidate, and let the candidates determine how to use their minutes. It could be 15 second spots, 30 second spots, 30 minute spots - however they want to use the time, all of which  must be during prime time.  For print, it's equally prominent space on equally prominent pages, again with the candidates determining how to use their allotment.  Billboards could be allocated to each team, equally visible locations, up for equal time, with a drawing or coin toss to determine who ends up where.  Heck, they could even play Rock, Paper, Scissors to determine the placement. Online ads could be managed the same way, I would think; might take some doing but there are plenty of really good local ad agencies who can help figure it out.

(2) Make time available for individual and joint sessions with the candidates, using different formats (town hall style, formal debates, single issue sessions, online chats, and so on). Post videos and transcripts from the sessions quickly and prominently on your websites and through social media. On your news broadcasts, mention the information is available, show the links on the screen when you go to commercial, that kind of thing. Present these sessions with limited commercial interruption (none for 30-minute segments, one commercial block for hour-long segments). Establish these as collaborations with your partner stations, including cable news and public television, rotating them so that no one station bears the burden of the lost revenue. Radio stations can do the same, particularly the ones that have local shows already. Some of the local papers already offer the Q&A chats, and should continue to do so. They can also 'black box' notices on their web pages, and in print, letting people know the transcripts are available.

(3) Manage the sessions. Solicit questions from residents of the district for the sessions outlined above. The reasoning behind this is simple: the sessions are for the benefit of the voters, not for the promotion of the hosts, anchors and reporters, or stations or newspapers that participate.  And when the hosts, anchors and reporters do ask questions, keep them short and to the point. We are not interested in learning about how well you ask  questions, we're interested in getting answers from the candidates. When the candidates don't answer the question(s), respectfully point that out. And fact-check their statements, and post that information along with the transcripts and videos.

(4) Refuse all ads that are not expressly approved by candidates. Regardless of how much money is dangled in front of you. If we're asking the candidates to disavow the money, we can't have you taking it behind their backs.  Serve the public interest, and just say no.

With these options and guidelines in place, and with commitment to abide by the five suggestions from yesterday's post, challengers like Katko can be less reliant on outside money, outside endorsements, and 'support' from interest groups which frequently comes in the from of less-than-truthful advertising crammed down everyone's throats, and can instead focus on getting out, meeting voters, (from all parties, not just their base) and putting their positions front and center.

Incumbents like Maffei would have the opportunity to do their own talking, defend their own record, and show us why we should give them another chance, without all the noise, name-calling, and mud-slinging that seems to be a benefit of incumbency.

This is a challenge for our local media companies - I get that. And I hope it's the kind of challenge they'd be willing to tackle.  I like to think that they'd rather be doing this kind of reporting, this kind of broadcasting, and being associated with this kind of advertising, than what they're faced with today.

And if the candidates have these opportunities, and choose to waste them by slamming the other guy, going negative, slinging mud, refusing to talk about their own positions, their own plans, well, so be it. We'll know for sure then what they stand for.

And isn't that the point?