Tag Archives: media bias

Political ads feed local TV watchdogs so well they don’t bark

News media that rely on ads have always had a problem covering their own advertisers. It’s rare to find a reporter who doesn’t have a story, sometimes well-founded, of an employer whose newsroom pulled its punches or looked the other way to avoid rattling the worthies who paid the bills.

Obviously that’s bad, a familiar and corrupt concession to an institutional conflict of interest. Still, at least the harm was confined: The advertiser usually had narrow concerns—say, a car dealer that wanted to squelch some sour publicity. Killing the story was hardly a proud moment for the Fourth Estate, but the ad dependency didn’t shackle the media to a generalized, paralyzing incapacity to cover realities that lay at the core of civic life.

But suppose the ads don’t come from mere local retailers. Suppose they’re from people who bankroll elections. Welcome to 2012, where the sources of the money that’s critical to the business success of influential news media are, at the same time, the people who are orchestrating the major campaigns—people who, if news media were covering the news, would be confronted, exposed, and made to explain who they are and what they’re up to.

Instead, some of the same media that should referee political discourse and oversee the process by which a sovereign electorate selects its leaders are in thrall to the backroom players whose mission it is to manipulate and game that discourse.

The focus here is on local TV broadcasting, the most pivotal and most sought-after medium for targeting voters in battleground states. In an otherwise lackluster year for overall advertising, outlays on local TV are projected to grow 15 percent this year over 2011, thanks to TV’s disproportionate share of the torrential $3.3 billion in political advertising expected by Nov. 6.  

A disquieting study by Timothy Karr of Free Press, a media watchdog, examined campaign ads on local TV affiliates of the NBC, ABC, Fox and CBS networks in Tampa, Milwaukee, Las Vegas, Cleveland and Charlotte. Those are second-tier markets, but they are the places that will swing the coming presidential election, and spending there has soared.

(The bonanza has also affected such mid-sized communities as Colorado Springs, where slippage in traditional Republican dominance could harm the party’s chances of holding Colorado. National Public Radio reports that spending there is three times what it was in 2008, when a 30-second local TV spot that normally cost $300 went for $7,000, and the city is now among the top 10 ad markets in the country.)

But Karr wanted to know whether the TV stations that are pocketing the money are also reporting on the entities that bankroll those ads, and whether they are checking the accuracy of the messages that have become the public’s principal source of political information. Are the media still practicing journalism, or are they nothing more than conduits for paid propaganda? Continue reading

The dubious value of primary debates

Televised candidate debates have become the marquee spectacles of presidential campaigns. By the time Republicans vote in the Florida primary, candidates seeking the party’s presidential nomination will have debated 19 times since May. That’s 30-some hours of live national TV, plus untold hours of recap, recrimination, chatter and miscellaneous noise churned up by the events.

Now, as somebody who deplores the larcenous rates commercial broadcasters normally charge candidates to reach the electorate, I’m glad. The debates constitute a grant of free TV time to hopefuls who might otherwise be priced off the air and out of the race.

But beyond that, since debates seem certain to be a feature of U.S. elections as far as the eye can see, it’s worth asking about how they affect the way elections are conducted and decided.

At the outset, a huge core fact: These debates are TV shows. They aren’t events arranged independently by candidates that the media then decide are newsworthy enough to broadcast. They are classic pseudo-events, in the late Daniel Boorstin’s memorable term — they happen only because they’ll be televised. Accordingly, media organizations far outnumber all other co-sponsors: Of this season’s 19 Republican debates, Wikipedia notes, four co-sponsors were foundations or universities, 12 were political entities, and 34 were media organizations.

That’s not new. The 2008 primaries, when both parties had fierce primary races, had 34 debates, according to a George Washington University website. The co-sponsors: 13 political groups, 14 foundations or universities, and 55 media organizations.

This co-dependency rests on warm and cozy mutual advantage: The candidates get to tee up their messages, the media get a self-replenishing source of quotable utterances. Broadcasters, who nowadays break less and less news, get a cheap and exhilarating chance to once again be a vital source of current affairs programming.

But to what effect? As a fan of this season’s GOP debates, I began wondering whether their overall impact on political discourse was, in partisan terms, absurdly one-sided. For months, hours of television time had been given to aspirants who agreed on little but their conviction that the Obama administration has been a disastrous failure.

There was no room for dissent on that fundamental premise. Debate protocol, obviously enough, enables candidates who are attacked to respond. But if someone egregiously distorted the facts about the incumbent administration, and nobody on stage thought they’d win any friends by correcting the distortion, the false assertion stood unchallenged.

Now, consider the cumulative impact of having dozens of hours of such lopsided discourse, in which the only push-back came from within the closed universe of a single party. It occurred to me that the overall consequence of such an intensely covered primary season, when candidates from one party vied before national audiences to run against a sitting president, might be powerful tailwind for the challengers and against the incumbent. Continue reading

Media’s search for oil spill villain leads to the White House

I for one am glad that the catastrophe off the Louisiana coast has been fully explained, and the failure first to prevent and then to halt the hemorrhage of crude oil that is souring the Gulf of Mexico has finally been laid at the feet of the guy who’s truly responsible: the president of the United States, Barack Obama.

What a relief. For a while it was getting confusing. No longer. And I have the country’s news media to thank for this clarity. The media have redirected the public’s attention—away from BP’s record of indifference to safety and health, away from the corners that were cut and the risks that were overlooked, away from the role of defective workmanship and cheapskate engineering in producing disaster for which, astonishingly, no effective industry response even existed.

I exaggerate. There has indeed been coverage of those areas, some of it excellent, and there will be more. But the story that the media love, the overriding narrative that drives the story through today’s 24/7 news cycle, is Obama.

Newsweek reported that Obama faces “his own political blowout,” and when he referred to BP as “the responsible party,” he was “passing the buck.” In The Wall Street Journal, conservative diva Peggy Noonan titled her column “He was supposed to be competent,” and declared, “I don’t see how the president’s position and popularity can survive the oil spill.” Dana Milbank of The Washington Post ridiculed Obama’s acceptance of responsibility as “lawyerly,” “passive” and above all, excessive, as if he relished the blame he was assigning himself.

So how is it that Obama is personally pilloried for an unprecedented technical blunder committed by mighty corporations that had generally been presumed to know their trade, and which arose out of decades of snuggly regulation that he’s even now being criticized for seeking to toughen?

In a larger sense, why has this become a story about government, not business?

There are at least three reasons why this toxic plume has drifted to Washington.

First, the focus on government reflects a longstanding practice, almost a reflex, in the way news is framed. This is a frequent complaint made against the “liberal” media by conservative commentators, who criticize the tendency of journalists to automatically suggest the remedy for social ills must be some new law or government initiative. And that means, egads, more government spending, a preordained conclusion that the liberal media supposedly must return to, like arsonists to a fire they set (though unlike arsonists the media then stick around to criticize the firefighters.)

I think there’s truth to that, though ironically, in this case that journalistic habit of seeing problems as programs is working for the Right by refocusing the story onto the White House and discrediting a president whom conservatives revile.

Second, the internal hierarchy of the most influential, agenda-setting news organizations assigns pride of place to the reporters who cover the political world. They’re the top dogs. There is, accordingly, a powerful institutional undertow in favor of finding and emphasizing the partisan significance of important non-political happenings—indeed, in insisting that their political dimension is what matters most about them.

In the early days of the oil story you could almost smell the impatience on the Sunday talk shows among the Beltway crowd, who were eager for a clear narrative linking the unfolding disaster to the things they care most about, like the midterm elections. Without that link, it wouldn’t be their story. Only once that bridge was found could the event that unquestionably matters—the greatest oil spill in U.S. history—be safely entrusted to the journalists who matter most, the ones who cover not energy, not the environment, not business, but high-stakes political gaming.

So dwelling on the Obama dimension of the story has a powerful constituency within the news business itself.

Third, however, in the final analysis the media are left with that eloquent catchphrase from Ghostbusters: Who are ya gonna call? It’s not the media’s fiction that the federal government has no rival as the institution with ultimate responsibility for public wellbeing. Obama becomes the focus of news not because he’s at fault, but because he’s there. His actions, his utterances, embody the overall wisdom and effectiveness of the society’s response.

And that’s inevitable, I suppose. But this is a huge, harrowing story, and our grandchildren will live with its consequences. The media have a duty not to trivialize it by indulging in mind-numbing tropes like “Obama’s Katrina.” It took decades of failure across a broad range of public and private institutions to tee up a disaster of this magnitude. It’ll take the best the media can do to explain how it happened and help ensure it’s never repeated.

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