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Opinion: Free airtime would clean up US politics

Paid political ads on TV and radio are banned in Britain and many other European countries. The US should follow suit.

What makes this unholy alliance between broadcasters, politicians and special interests even more unfair and unjustifiable is the fact that the broadcasters own one of the country's most limited and powerful assets — the frequencies available for broadcasting. These frequencies are so valuable they are virtually a license to print money.

The Federal Communications Commission used to require that stations which were granted a license to broadcast must provide a public service in addition to making bags of money on entertainment. That meant that most stations offered a healthy menu of real news and public affairs programs. Nowadays, a largely toothless F.C.C. lets them they get away with airing junk news, or no news at all.

If the broadcasters refuse to provide a real news service, the public could at least ask that they stop charging for the political ads that have debased American elections.

After all, the United States is a glaring exception to the rule followed by most other major democracies. Paid political ads on TV and radio are banned here in Britain and many other European countries because they are seen to be unfair. Most western European countries allocate free air time to political parties during election campaigns. Britain also has rules that outlaw the attack ads and smear tactics that are so common in American campaigns.

Could such a system work in the United States? Of course it could. But who would finance the campaigns of candidates who had the nerve to promise the voters that if they were elected, they would ban paid political ads on broadcasts and give free air time to all parties?