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With Senator Hillary Clinton eschewing matching federal funds, MoveOn.org attacking Senator John McCain on New Hampshire and Iowa television, and an issue spot pulled during Senator Russell Feingold's 2004 campaign arriving at the Supreme Court, let's admit that campaign finance reform inevitably fails.

Campaign finance controls, like ballyhooed "McCain-Feingold," are always a joke — "soft money" itself was originally a reform — because every attempt to control donations simply moves money into new loopholes.

McCain-Feingold didn't stop William Jefferson from hiding $90,000 in his freezer or Robert Ney from facing court. Instead, McCain-Feingold created "527 groups" that mire their big bucks in ever more brutal attack ads.

All top 10 "527" financial backers in 2004 were on the Forbes list of America's richest, and six were billionaires. About 85 percent of $188 million came from people who dropped at least $250,000.

Regardless of whether the giver was Democrat George Soros — $24 million — or Republican T. Boone Pickens — $4 million — democracy suffers when it's checkbook-based. The Jack Abramoffs thrive as politicians scramble to run "credible" campaigns. Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, remember, are the Democratic 2008 front-runners because of their potential to raise $75 million this year, not because of long experience in government or superior ideas.

To return to rational, thoughtful politics, we must think outside our box — literally. We should eliminate 30- and 60-second political spots from television.

While upholding the pre-eminent position of political speech, the Supreme Court has always ruled that it can be controlled as long as all political speech is controlled. "Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech" has never been held to be absolute.

Today, we have "free speech zones" that keep demonstrators away from party conventions; bus companies aren't allowed to have "vote for…" on their sides; anti-abortion protestors are forced to stay specific distances from clinics; and television must offer the same advertising packages to all candidates.

No law, the Supreme Court consistently rules, can differentiate between political opinions, but it can regulate the expression of them, including a total ban.

These "time, place and manner" restrictions on the First Amendment indicate the courts would uphold a ban on audio and video spots from television, cable, satellites, radio and phone services.

Banning the short spots would force politicians and backers of particular issues to speak with rational — rather than manipulative — voices, and their need for money would plummet. A ban on all broadcast political 30- and 60-second spots would force politicians back to the First Amendment's true purpose — unfettered political discourse, not unfettered 30-second trash.

Certainly, no issue facing this country, or state, or city can be discussed in such tiny segments of time. My wife and I can't decide where to eat in 30 seconds, and yet today's political ads explain economic policy in the time it takes to flush the toilet? And certainly, politicians of all stripes are sick of trolling for dollars.

Some three in four modern campaign dollars go to TV spots, giving us citizens the illusion that we're informed. In the 2004 presidential race, $800 million of $1.2 billion bought these tiny bits of TV time.

With any reform except diminishing the need for money, lobbyists and politicians always know how to bypass the letter, while we, like Abramoff's Indian tribes, think "spirit."

Before the 2008 campaign gets overheated, let's convince Congress to require candidates, parties, 527 groups, PACs, companies, unions, anyone-with-a-political-message to buy at least 10 minutes of air time. Demanding 10 minutes would mean that politicians would be required to discuss pros and cons of policy instead of viciously beating up opponents. Issue supporters would produce ideas and illustrate long-term effects if forced to have real time in their airtime.

The personal appearance and the in-depth interview would regain traction in our political culture, thereby decreasing the need for "Pioneers" or for renting the Lincoln Bedroom.

Newspapers, magazines and true broadcast news shows — whose reporters at least attempt objectivity — would regain an audience because vicious attack spots would move to the Internet, where viewers are so segmented that few see or hear anything they don't already agree with. The "vast right-wing conspiracy" could bash Senator Clinton on YouTube, for example, with hardly any middle-of-the-road voters stumbling across a half-dozen of her out-of-context words.

For context, voters would turn to her 10-minute broadcast and then the morning paper to discover the social, political, historical and economic background of her proposal.

Trying to force broadcasters to give free air time, instead of banning the 30-second spots, has two primary issues. Under law, no broadcaster can refuse, or edit, a political ad, so attack spots would still trash the air waves, except for free. In addition, since the decision to give free air boils down to who might be a "bona fide" candidate, every broadcaster — if forced to give away what is usually sold — would minimize the number of "bona fides."

The basis of America's First Amendment, remember, is that "truth will prevail in a free marketplace of ideas." Banning spots from television, but allowing 30s on the Internet, keeps the unbridled marketplace and still allows anyone to say anything he or she wants. But ensuring that a broadcast speaker speaks for 10-plus minutes returns to us those dual concepts of "ideas" and "truth."

Both require more than 30 seconds and neither is owned solely by the rich. S

Randy Salzman is a former journalism teacher at Virginia Union University and a transportation researcher who now lives in Charlottesville

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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