Charles Lewis, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington, D.C.-based campaign watchdog organization, is not ready to write off the possibility of free broadcast time for candidates. But he told United Press International the prospect is not very strong.
"It is absolutely dim," he said.
When Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis., were promoting federal campaign finance reform legislation, Lewis said they wanted free airtime to be part of the deal, but they dropped that provision because they knew it would sink their bill.
"The gist of their comments to me," said Lewis, "was, look, there's one special interest we just can't beat ... and that's free airtime."
Lewis, the author of a new book on campaign fundraising and spending, "The Buying of the President 2004," said politicians at least as far back as former President Jimmy Carter have favored requiring broadcasters to provide candidates with free access to publicly owned airwaves.
"Carter was really ... angry," said Lewis. "The thing that was most galling to him is the subject of free airtime and the profiteering from democracy that the media are doing and the hammerlock they have on democracy."
Broadcasters reject the charge. The National Association of Broadcasters opposes mandated free airtime for candidates, but NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton says broadcasters already offer free time voluntarily.
"One of our continual frustrations is that when we offer free airtime it often gets turned down," he said.
Wharton said incumbents in safe congressional seats, relying on advice from what he called their "high-priced consultants," are particularly unwilling to accept offers of free airtime.
"When stations offer free airtime for debate, their consultants say 'stay away from that -- it's unscripted, it's not controlled by me,' the consultants," he said.
Wharton said campaign consultants have an incentive to reject free airtime and spend lots of money on ads because they often get a percentage of the amount spent as part of their consulting fees.
Lewis agreed that that dynamic discourages wider acceptance of free airtime for candidates.
"The campaign industry is a multi-billion dollar industry and getting larger every day," he said. "There are no ethical standards. Campaign managers are routinely placing ad work with their own companies."
Lewis said broadcasters spend millions of dollars to resist free airtime while at the same time they fail to provide much news coverage of the issue, leaving the public largely in the dark about it.
In any event, even supporters of free airtime acknowledge that it would be no panacea for the ever-expanding costs of running political campaigns.
Lewis said TV and radio ads accounted for 30 percent to 40 percent of spending in congressional campaigns in recent years. The rest of the budgets went for such items as consulting fees, polling, focus groups, speechwriters and other expenses.
Brooks Jackson, the former CNN reporter who now heads Annenberg Political Fact Check for the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center, said candidates would probably rather have free money.
"Free TV time won't buy you a headquarters, won't rent you phone lines, won't hire you a driver and a scheduler, someone to answer the phones, won't buy you postage and won't buy you polling or any other of a number of campaign expenses," said Jackson.
Jackson said polls suggest voters want to get rid of special interest money in politics, but they're not ready to commit public funds to pay for campaigns.
"If you ask people do they want special interest money out of politics, they say, 'Sure,'" he said. "If you ask do they want candidates to get taxpayer dollars they say, 'Hell, no.'"
Wharton said a 2002 poll commissioned by the NAB suggested that voters think broadcasters already do a good job of informing the electorate. The poll found that 83 percent of registered voters believed that local broadcasters provided "the right amount" or "too much" coverage of the 2002 elections.
By a margin of 71 percent to 26 percent, those polled were against government-mandated free airtime for candidates. More than seven out of 10 said if candidates got free airtime, they would keep raising money anyway and spend it on something else.
Lewis said a major obstacle to federally mandated free airtime for candidates is fear among politicians.
"If the public is not engaged and there's a powerful industry that decides whether or not put their face on the tube, that's power," he said. "Who wants to go anywhere near that? Why not just write your death certificate?"
Lewis said that both current and former politicians have told him they think broadcasters are "a vindictive lot" and that they keep score.
"Any politician that runs a crusade about the airwaves," he said, "they'll never be heard from again."