Highlighted in the weirdness of the French election is an amazing example of government meddling with the media.
By law, so I heard on NPR, French media have to give equal news coverage to all candidates. So editors were scrambling to fill up column inches and broadcast minutes for the fringiest fringe candidates. If there was a 12-inch story on a major candidate, there had to be a 12-inch story on the Free Cheese Party candidate. A 30-second story on a leading candidate had to be matched right quick with 30 seconds for the Let’s Have Yet One More National Holiday Party.
Now I have to admit I once advocated, in a Strib op-ed, that our public airwaves in America be taken back from the networks for wall-to-wall C-SPAN-type coverage of all presidential candidates. One night a week, you can’t find “Friends” reruns or Paris Hilton, just candidates on every broadcast channel doing whatever they wanted to do to communicate what they’re all about. You don’t have to watch, but if you flip on the TV, you find the public airwaves serving a public purpose. I got righteously hooted down on the Barbara Carlson radio show, but I still kind of like the idea.
But France is making me think again. We need to do something to counteract the huge distorting role money — mostly for advertising — plays in American campaigns, and it would be nice to hear more substantive discussions and arguments and fewer insipid “I really love America” ads. But telling editors what to cover ain’t the right idea.
On the other hand, something about media and elections is working in France — half the French voters watched or listened to the final debate this week. To get an audience that large in America, you’d have to broadcast Geraldo leading Sanjaya on a quest to find Anna Nicole’s original breasts.