Clinton Asks Broadcasters For Free TV Time

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WASHINGTON, D.C.: Continuing his defense that he hasn't done anything i llegal, and, anyway, we really need to reform the campaign finance system, President Bill Clinton turned to broadcasters for a way out, arguing that candidates would not face such financial pressures if they had free TV airtime. "Free time for candidates can help free our democracy from the grip of big money," Clinton told reporters at the National Press Club. Although it's an idea that has been floating around for years, the President hopes to use the proposal to spur debate on financ e reform, while also taking some of the heat off the White House. "We have to use the present intense interest in this, as well as the controversy over fund raising in the last election and all the publicity over it, as a spur to action," said Clinton. The President, aides say, is prodding the Federal Communications Commission to use free campaign air time as a quid pro quo for allowing broadcasters to switch over to technically superior digital signals. Underlying Clinton's maneuverings is a serious question for a democracy: does free speech include the right of wealthy special interests to drown out the voices of those who can't afford TV ads? Democrats as well as NewsCorp head Rupert Murdoch, whose scrappy Fox network is fight ing its larger competitors for market share, have emerged as advocates of free TV. But many Republicans, led by Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, counter that the problem with politics is not that there's too much money, but rather that there' s too little. They favor lifting all restrictions on spending coupled with fuller and faster disclosure rules. The two views are the extremes; in the middle is the McCain-Feingold bill, which would ban soft money contributions, but does little to ad dress the probability that donors would simply find another way to give.