The high court showers the media with blessings

Media-bashing is such a reliable crowd-pleaser for conservatives that you never stop to wonder whether all that anger might be a bit of a sham. After all, whenever the opportunity comes along to ensure that the companies that own the media are amply fed and watered, the media’s most stalwart allies are on the right.

While liberals quiver and quail, conservatives invariably step right up: No proposed media merger is ever too colossal to block, no matter how it would hobble competition; no regulatory surrender is too cowardly if it’ll bring more money to media owners, no matter how thoroughly the “public convenience and necessity”—which communications policy is supposed to protect—would be trashed.

Hence January’s decision from the right-minded conservatives who control the U.S. Supreme Court. They swept aside longstanding restrictions on corporation-funded political advertising and thereby ensured the country’s media hundreds of millions of dollars of additional ad revenues for many, many years to come.

Most of the coverage of this ruling has focused on its consequences for the so-called marketplace of ideas. Either this fanciful place is now open to voices that had been wrongly muffled (the view of the court’s 5-4 majority), or it’s been left defenseless to unrestrained predation by special interests (President Obama’s view, reiterated during his State of the Union speech last week.)

But what’s missing from that discussion is the impact this ruling will have on America’s advertising-dependent media. There, it’s Christmas in January.

The ad industry was quick to recognize this, and Advertising Age, the respected trade journal, quoted a Needham & Co. estimate that the ruling would bring another $300 million—in addition to the $2.8 billion already forecast—to local TV stations this year. Another Ad Age writer quoted an analyst from TNS Media Intelligence that the ruling “takes an already bulked up [election season] and puts it on steroids.”

Analysts cited by Ad Age suggested that CBS, whose local TV stations cover 40 percent of the country, will get $50 million more this year than the $160 million it got from political ads in 2008. Other major station owners will also benefit, among them News Corp., Disney, NBC Universal, Gannett, Scripps, Belo, Meredith, Gray and Sinclair Broadcast. For local stations, political advertising is second only to automotive ads, accounting for 10 percent of total revenue in election years.

Even those analyses, I suspect, are understated. That’s because they’re confined to local TV and based on forecasts for marquee races in battleground states. But you need to add in the state and municipal races. Think county officials and judicial elections.

What an opportunity. If I ran a media company, I’d be putting together selling campaigns for local companies that want to be sure candidates sympathetic to their interests—development plans, changes in zoning laws, tax breaks, a new sports arena, road expansion—benefit from well-funded, expertly calibrated, advertising outreach.

That’s also where the most toxic effects of the court’s ruling will be felt—not in the national arena, where big money long ago figured out how to get around the rules the court outlawed, and where a multiplicity of voices are already heard. The new era the court has opened is one in which local money can flood the zone with self-serving messages about matters that, thanks to the slashes in newsroom budgets among metro newspapers, are covered thinly if at all by available media.

Soon enough, perhaps even in this election cycle, most of what people hear about state and local issues will be via paid corporate advertising.

Now, the Supreme Court majority doesn’t think that matters. In fact, Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion complains that certain corporations have always been free of restrictions on their political speech, and that this is unfair. The corporations he means are those that own news media, and since nobody would suggest muzzling the media, other corporations should be free to speak without restraint too.

Now, I spend a lot of time puzzling over what the media do and why they do it, and it’s a complicated business that rarely yields clear answers. But I can say with some assurance that the notion that, say, CNN’s newscast is no different from a political advertisement purchased by its corporate parent, Time Warner, is a stunningly obtuse observation that shows almost total ignorance of the actual conditions under which journalism is practiced.

Why, if news reporters do nothing more than serve as mouthpieces for those to whom they owe their jobs, can’t the same be said for Supreme Court justices?

Obviously, an insulting idea. But I guess the media will just have to grimace all the way to the bank.

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