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Free air time: Why many politicians paid instead

In politics, front-running candidates are an unusually risk-averse breed. And sometimes, that means turning down a chance to appear on television - even if it's free.

That's what the Alliance for Better Campaigns, a Washington group trying to improve the tenor of political races, found in the recent elections.

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First, the group and its affiliates got more than 100 TV stations around the country to offer free air time to candidates, either in the form of mini-debates or taped responses to questions. The idea was to provide voters with information that's a little more edifying than attack ads and 30-second sound bites.

"The public has been trying to tell the political culture for decades now, give us something better than the junk food of just ads, ads, ads, and no coverage," says Paul Taylor, the alliance's executive director. "The public just drifts away," he adds.

But of the 103 stations that offered free air time, about a fifth of them never aired any segments, and others aired fewer segments than they offered. In most cases, it was the front-runner who played hard to get.

In Illinois, Sen.-elect Peter Fitzgerald (R), who beat the Democratic incumbent, Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, turned down repeated offers to tape one-minute responses to questions on issues.

In Florida, Gov.-elect Jeb Bush (R) also never took up offers to tape responses to questions that would have aired on 11 Florida stations.

In California, Gov.-elect Gray Davis (D) declined an offer to take part in eight mini-debates that would have run during the evening news. Mr. Davis did other debates, but they weren't televised during prime-news viewing time. Spokesmen for these candidates argue their campaigns received so many offers for debates and other media appearances that they couldn't possibly accept all of them. But if the idea was to avoid too many risky, unscripted television appearances, the strategy worked. All three front-runners won.

Still, no one disputes the idea that campaigns have become increasingly driven by the paid media, and that both candidates and TV stations have entered a cozy symbiosis: The candidates get to control their messages by paying for ads, and the stations make big money. In addition, some stations have cut back on campaign coverage, forcing candidates to buy ads in order to communicate with the public.

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The challenge for campaign-reform advocates is both to persuade more TV stations to offer candidates time, and to get more candidates to accept it. Like the televised debates that are now a staple of every presidential campaign, "we need to find a way to institutionalize that set of expectations [that candidates will use free air time to debate policies] at the state level," says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a communications expert at the University of Pennsylvania.

A little nudge from Washington may be on the way. Later this month, a presidential advisory commission on digital TV and the public interest will issue its report. The commission is expected to recommend that broadcasters provide five minutes a night of candidate-centered discourse for the 30 nights before an election.

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