By Linda Kramer
May 27, 1996 12:00 PM

Paul Taylor has never been one to pull punches. In 1987, as a reporter for The Washington Post, he asked Democratic presidential hopeful Gary Hart the question that some of his journalistic colleagues were reluctant to touch: Did you commit adultery? Hart, tainted by his dalliance with Donna Rice, pulled the plug on his campaign the next day. Taylor, one of the country’s leading political reporters, then moved to South Africa in 1992 for the Post, where, despite being shot and beaten covering various stories, he documented the nation’s first free elections.

So it was perhaps not so odd that Taylor, 47, would quit the Post in December, ending his 25-year career in journalism to create the Free TV for Straight Talk Coalition. His mission (with funding from the Pew Charitable Trust): to pressure the networks into helping better inform voters. Taylor and his group have suggested that each major presidential candidate get 2 to 5 minutes of free prime-time TV—alone and without interruption—on alternating nights the month before the election. With the help of Walter Cronkite and more than 70 prominent journalists, academics and politicians, Taylor recently secured a tentative agreement with the major networks with offers ranging from one-hour specials to five-minute spots on existing news or commentary programs. “The most important thing,” says Taylor, a married father of three who lives in Bethesda, Md., “is to start to change the language of politics on television in a fundamental way, to create a format where there’s a kind of running debate.” Taylor, who hopes someday to extend his crusade to state-level races, spoke with correspondent Linda Kramer in Washington.

What inspired you to pursue this idea?

Seeing how well South Africa’s new democracy worked, I became even more convinced that we could do better. And part of it was more personal, a sense that I’d had a terrific run as a journalist and maybe it’s time to do something else.

Why will free airtime change things?

The most important political transactions in our society occur on television. The most useful place to search for improvement is there. That is the belly of the beast.

How did you plan to persuade networks to give up free airtime?

I hoped to assemble a group that could appeal to their highest instincts and say, “You are big, America’s been good to you, you ought to care—and I’m sure you do care—that politics in this country isn’t going very well and that people are deeply cynical. Let’s see if we can’t persuade you to be part of the solution.”

Does the system really need fixing?

Here we are the oldest and, I think, the smartest and freest democracy in the world, and yet once every four years a presidential election comes around and half the eligible voters choose not to vote. Unfortunately, political campaigns, particularly as they unfold on television, actively repel people rather than draw them in.

How so?

It has to do with the 30-second ad and the 7-second soundbite. The problem with negative ads is not necessarily that they’re negative. The purpose of that kind of political communication is to persuade people who might have been inclined to vote for your opponent not to vote at all. They work by shrinking the electorate. Who wouldn’t grow cynical when in campaign after campaign politicians say the nastiest things about each other, and then journalists come in and bayonet the wounded, as journalists tend to do in their own charming way?

All journalists?

The journalists who aspire to be media celebrities and have stopped trying to make a distinction between beat reporter and opinion columnist. They scramble to get on TV talk shows and become pundits. When I started out, the typical show, like Meet the Press, was clearly about the guest, and the journalists were only questioners.

How would free TV spots change politicians’ messages?

This format allows politicians to take the high road, to appeal to the better angels of the electorate. Right now they have to either attack or pander. In a 30-second ad they don’t have enough time to make an affirmative case for what they believe in.

Without a moderator, won’t candidates serve up phony images?

If there’s one thing Americans are terrific at, it’s watching television. No one is going to dupe the American public, particularly in a format where candidates have to come back night after night. They will get naked very quickly because they have the most discriminating viewers in the world watching them.