The election of a President is our democracy's crowning moment. It is the one time every four years that Americans hold a national town
meeting, chart a common course and choose a leader who personifies our unifying myths. The exercise is part political transaction, part civic ritual. The way we conduct it matters--not just for the choice it yields but for the tone it sets for the ongoing enterprise of public life.
Yet despite the inherent majesty of the occasion, this country has never seen fit to establish ground rules to ensure that it unfolds above a floor of reason and dignity. We are devoutly laissez-faire when it comes to regulating political campaigns. . . . We allow our candidates to "talk" in pictures, attack ads and nine-second news bites, secure in the belief that the voters will cut through the hokum. This confidence is, in the main, well-grounded. American voters rarely get duped.
Yet saying that our market of political discourse is efficient is not the same as saying it is healthy. Vast numbers of voters are dropping out of the market altogether: the dialogue doesn't interest them. At the close of our most recent national town meeting, a record 91 million adult Americans had nothing to say.
What I propose is that we add to the political conversation, not subtract from it. It may seem paradoxical to try to revive our political dialogue by forcing more of it onto the medium that contributes so mightily to its anemia. But any serious reform proposal must go straight to the belly of the beast, for that's where the conversation "happens" for most Americans. The trick is to transform television into an ally of reasoned debate, not an enemy.
Here's my five-minute fix: Starting with the 1992 campaign, each major candidate for President should be given five minutes of free time a night--on alternating nights-- simultaneously on every television and radio station in the country for the final five weeks of the campaign. If this plan had been in effect in 1988, George Bush would have had five minutes on Monday, Oct. 3--at, say, 7:55 p.m.--on each of America's 1,378 television stations and 10,337 radio stations. Michael S. Dukakis would have had the same five-minute time slot on Tuesday, Oct. 4, Bush on Wednesday, Oct. 5, and so on, right up (to) the election.
In return for this grant of free time, each candidate would agree to one simple format restriction: He (or his running mate) would have to appear on the air for the entire five minutes. No Willie Horton. No opponent. No surrogate. No journalists. Just the candidate, talking into the camera, making his best case to an audience of roughly 60 million viewers for five minutes a night.
Is there any guarantee this would elevate the conversation? Actually, no. Nothing in this format would prevent a candidate from blathering about puppy dogs and picket fences or from launching a barrage of slanderous attacks if he were convinced either of those approaches would win him votes.
But there are, embedded in this proposal, a number of disincentives to engage in that kind of discourse. First, there is the check of personal accountability. If a candidate chose to devote his five-minute presentation to mindless happy talk or distorted accusation, at least he would have to put his own face and voice on the line. Next, there is the certainty of a swift response. What Candidate A says tonight, Candidate B gets a chance to refute tomorrow night--same time, same stations.
Suppose we were to achieve the goal of a more elevated campaign debate for five minutes a night. So what? Wouldn't it still be drowned out by the more potent, more visually stimulating 30-second paid spots that would continue to dominate the airwaves? Perhaps. But there are three aspects of this free-time plan that would allow it to compete with--and perhaps even overwhelm--poisonous 30-second political commercials: simultaneity, brevity and repetition.
Simultaneity is by far the most important. (By that I mean simultaneous by time zone, as currently practiced by the networks. That is, whether you live in Portland, Me., or Portland, Ore., you would see the segment at 7:55 p.m. by your clock.) The idea that everyone in America who has a radio or television tuned in at 7:55 p.m. has to listen to the same thing would, in and of itself, concentrate attention. Millions of viewers and listeners would no doubt resent the nightly force-feeding of politics. Some would escape to a cable station, or to a movie on their VCR, or to another room of the house. So be it--these are safety valves to coerced viewing. What matters is not that millions would escape, but that tens of millions wouldn't.
If you are going to pass a law that tries to force political dialogue on viewers this way, you owe it to them to make it as palatable as possible. This is where brevity comes into play. . . . Five minutes is long enough to say something substantive, but short enough to keep most viewers parked on their sofas.