Could the FCC Shrink the Influence of Money in Politics?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In response to the A&Q I wrote on money in politics, the following reader wonders if stronger policing of the airwaves by the FCC could mitigate the problem (my response follows):


I think you could accomplish this by fiat, using FCC regulatory authority. Require media to allocate specific amounts of coverage to the political process as terms of use for public radio spectrum or over cable, as cable crosses over not only public property, but also over private property seized by state eminent domain.
So you basically, you look at the political process as an essential part of civic duty (such as paying taxes, or abiding laws), and when you consider that literally all broadcast media requires use of public space, it's not really so much to ask.


If the government forced the broadcast media to devote a certain amount of coverage to elections and candidates, would that level the playing field for candidates that don’t have access to millions of dollars to buy TV and radio ads?

I think this is problematic for a number of reasons.

Right now, the FCC has a very limited role in regulating political coverage. The main rule that it enforces is the requirement that broadcast networks provide “equal time” to candidates. We saw an example of this when NBC provided free air time to four of Donald Trump’s rivals after the Republican frontrunner hosted Saturday Night Live last fall. But the equal-time rule have not traditionally been applied to cable channels, and it is the 24-hour networks like CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News that now dominate election coverage. The big complaint this year isn’t that the cable networks have ignored the election—if anything, it’s that they’ve devoted too much time to covering Donald Trump for the last year. The other problem is that even if it was extended to cover cable channels, the rule already exempts news coverage, so it wouldn’t prevent, say, CNN from deciding to give wall-to-wall coverage to Trump’s every utterance while ignoring other candidates. Changing this dynamic would require a major overhaul of the FCC’s power in ways that could infringe upon freedom of the press.

Increasing the FCC’s regulatory authority might have more of an impact if it was directed at local and congressional races, which don’t get as much news coverage. Allowing candidates free access to the local air waves to make their case to voters would at least offer a minimum amount of publicity for contenders without much funding, but the impact would likely be diluted if wealthier campaigns could still augment their allowance with a barrage of paid advertising.