Role of the Media in Election Campaigns Term Paper

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Superiority of the Canadian Government over that of the United States Regarding Access to the Media by Political Parties

The media, with its diverse modes of mass communication, plays a pivotal role in electoral campaigns both in Canada and the United States. Candidates for political office thoroughly understand the infinite potential in utilizing the media for their campaign platforms. With just one brief thirty-second advertisement during a commercial break either on the radio or on television, a candidate instantaneously speaks to millions of attentive listeners and/or viewers. By launching a national communications campaign, a political nominee essentially creates the most efficient and mesmerizing tool in his electoral arsenal.

Though the media has admittedly proven to be an invaluable tool in bridging the gap between a candidate and his constituency, there are a myriad of ethical issues that constrict a candidate from utilizing this resource to it's fullest potential. The main topic of contention is whether to grant every political party, despite the number of seats each occupies in either Parliament, the House of Representatives, or the Senate, free and equal access to radio and television broadcasts, or to simply parcel out a predetermined amount of minutes of each medium to every eligible party in proportion to its current holdings in political office. Both governments in Canada and the United States aim to strike a compromise between proponents on either side of this issue. However, the Canadian government appears to consistently act on behalf of its citizens, whereas the United States continually passes legislation that benefits mostly incumbents. Though legislators representing each nation should be praised for their sincere efforts to be as fair and as objective as possible, they desperately need to abandon their futile attempt to please everyone by granting political parties free and equal amounts of time on the radio, and on television.

Peter S. Grant, the Broadcasting Arbitrator of the Canadian government, articulated the dilemmas (albeit indirectly) that pervade the issue of access to the media by political parties. In a summary of the proceedings of a broadcasting time allocation meeting held on September 27, 2001 in Toronto, Ontario, he explored and analyzed several different viable solutions. He commenced his discussion by explaining how the 390 minutes of broadcasting time reserved as a result of section 335 of the Canada Elections Act are divided among the parties. According to this piece of legislation, section 338 of the Act contains 'statutory factors,' which help to calculate the percentage of a party's representation as a whole in the House of Commons, and that of the total number of popular votes the party received. Additional consideration is given to the amount of candidates supported by each of the registered parties.

As a result of this statistical process, a ratio is applied to the 390 minutes in order to allocate the time accordingly. Interestingly, Grant deliberately included a discussion of three separate twists of the amounts of time given to each party as prescribed by the ratio known as the 1/3 approach, the 2/3 approach, and the Equal time approach. Each of the amounts of allotted time represents the total amount of minutes to be set aside so that they may be distributed equally among the political parties. According to Grant's report, seven out of the ten political parties eligible to elect candidates to various races for office approved the 2/3 modified approach. However, Grant opted to veto the preference among the representatives present at the proceedings, and declare the 1/3 approach to be the best line of attack. He rationalized his decision by stating, the application of the statutory factors only is neither in the public interest nor is it fair to all the registered parties, because it does not give the smaller parties enough time to make a meaningful case on the broadcast media to their potential supporters.

Grant concluded his argument by saying that the 1/3 approach offers the most benefits out of the three methods because it "represents a middle ground, in that it seeks to provide a higher minimum amount for all parties than the statutory factors generate, but still gives greater weight to the parties that are represented in the House of Commons."

Why would Grant be so concerned with ensuring the availability of free broadcast time to all the political parties of the Canadian parliament? One possible explanation entails of ruling made by an Alberta court case in 1992. The Court challenged the allocation formula as previously described. It conceded that the purpose of the legislation was to guarantee that every political party had equal amounts of broadcasting time during a federal election campaign; however, it disapproved of the effect of allocation on the grounds that it potentially discriminated against new political parties on the rise. For example, in 1992, the Reform party planned to run 220 candidates in the upcoming federal election. However, as mandated by the Canada Elections Act, it would merely receive 10 of the 390 minutes reserved for advertisements. Meanwhile, the Progressive Conservative Party obtained a whopping 173 minutes, or 43% of the total amount of broadcasting minutes. As a result of these findings, the Court declared the allocation formula unconstitutional on the basis that "(it was) nether proportionate nor appropriate to the purpose of ensuring adequate air time to parties with the greatest national appeal." Although the Alberta Court of Appeal overthrew the decision in March 1995, it grappled with the possibility that the Broadcast Arbitrator may not be able to fully alleviate any unfairness or discriminatory effects that could potentially arise from strictly adhering to the allocation formula. This careful consideration undoubtedly influenced Grant's decision to equally distribute 1/3 of the total amount of minutes among the various political parties that participate in federal elections.

While the Canadian federal government consistently reviews legislation regarding utilization of the media by political parties for campaigns, the United States generally makes sweeping legislative amendments that are ineffective and futile. Supreme Court decisions such as Buckley v. Valeo, brilliantly illustrate this point. In 1976, the Court attempted to regulate expenditures made in campaign advertisements by distinguishing a 'campaign' advertisement from an "issue" advertisement. The distinction arose when the following words were spoken during the advertisement: "vote for," "elect," or "vote against." If any of this words or phrases were mentioned during the course of the advertisement, it would be deemed as a campaign advertisement. Thus, the candidate would be subject to federal campaigns regulations regarding spending limits. However, issue advertisements were excluded from this decree. Naturally, candidates representing the two predominant parties of the United States government, the Republican and the Democratic parties, began pouring their resources into manufacturing issue advertisements. Opting for an issue advertisement instead of a campaign advertisement may have rapidly depleted a candidate's campaign fund, but the payoffs were significant. Because the typical American household leaves their television on for seven hours each day, it only makes sense that election nominees invest their resources in carefully crafted television commercials.

The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA) sought to ameliorate the inequitable effects of unlimited campaign expenditures. Two critical components comprised the most powerful effects of this piece of legislation. First, the Act bans the use of 'soft money,' that is, boundless amounts of cash supplied from wealthy benefactors, or the candidate's own personal bank accounts, as was the case with presidential candidate H. Ross Perot. This includes federal officeholders, candidates, and national parties. It also prohibits the use of soft money by state and local parties for federal election activities. Second, the Act revisits the Buckley v. Valeo Supreme Court decision. It maintains the "magic words" that distinguish a campaign advertisement from that of an issue, but it broadens the definition of a campaign advertisement. According to the Act, any broadcast commercial that portrays a candidate within thirty days of a primary election or sixty days of a general election, and is target to supporters of the political party that the candidate represents, is subject to federal campaign laws.

Although legislators who drafted the BCRA should be praised for their efforts, they need to realize that making drastic changes too quickly will inevitably lead to backlash. More than 80 plaintiffs filed 11 different lawsuits, which have been consolidated into one case, McConnell v. FEC, referring Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the ringleader of the opposition movement, and the Federal Election Commission (FEC). The United States would greatly benefit from modeling their reforms of federal legislation regarding campaign finance after an approach the Canadian government has taken in response to similar issues. Regarding caps on campaign expenditures, the Canadian federal government regularly reexamines legislation, and welcomes open debates. Ironically, it is the government itself that supports spending limits. However, this would only apply to third parties, which would do nothing to sufficiently challenge the predominant parties. In this case, banning spending limits would provide opportunity for growth and vitality among third parties. When this issue is advocated in the United States, it is generally to benefit the…[continue]

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