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?

The Free Press findings were dispiriting. Network TV affiliates did no fact-checking on any of the political ads placed by the entities spending the most money in Las Vegas, Charlotte, Cleveland, Milwaukee and Tampa. In Cleveland, TV stations ran some 500 anti-Obama attack ads without any reporting about their chief funder, Americans for Prosperity, funded by the hard-right Koch brothers. In Charlotte, where the three top-spending funders had spent more than $4 million in the previous nine months, none of the stations offered any insight into the identity or objectives of the paymasters.

In a later look at Denver, site of the first presidential debate, Karr found that stations were getting a total of $6.5 million to air 4,954 ads from the five top-spending political action committees, while devoting less than 11 minutes to examining their truthfulness: a ratio, he concluded, of 162 minutes of campaign ads to every minute of related news.

In other words, the funders of political advertising appear to have purchased not just air time, but immunity from media scrutiny. The movement toward aggressive fact-checking, which evaluates the utterances of politicians for accuracy and consistency, doesn’t seem to have traction in local newsrooms, at least not when the air time has been bought and paid for.

In fact it is there that the fact-checking obligation is the greatest, because it’s there that the overwhelming preponderance of political speech takes place. It’s too much to expect media to turn down top-dollar ads that fail an elemental smell test, but they can at least make it clear that what the politicos are paying for is a right to speak for themselves, not a right to silence others.


One thought on “Political ads feed local TV watchdogs so well they don’t bark

  1. Good god – if it’s an ad, it’s not the media firm’s responsibility to fact check it. Ads are NOT news, and the responsibility for truth in advertising lies first with the advertiser, regardless of who pays for it. After that, it’s up to the ‘consumer’ to determine the truthfulness of the advertising. To clear as ‘true’ and ‘accurate’ every ad a publication receives just isn’t feasible.
    As for checking out who pays for the ad, if you don’t realize that the purchaser of the advertising has a purpose for spending that money, that purpose being the election of his/her candidate, and you don’t view the ad with some degree of skepticism, perhaps you shouldn’t be voting.
    There was an interesting story about the media coverage of the 2008 election, it’s still online at http://abcnews.go.com/Business/story?id=6099188&page=1#.UHOCO7-ZARk. It’s an interesting read.
    Now here’s what the news media did in 2008….
    According to no less a source than Investors Business Daily, U.S. federal records show that journalists contributed $225,563 to Democrats. Republicans received a meager $16,298, a fifteen to one disparity. 235 journalists donated to the Democrats vs. 20 to the Republicans. The ratio of those donating directly to Obama vs. those donating to McCain is 20:1.
    And that’s just the journalists. That doesn’t include other newsroom categories – photographers, editors, publishers – hundreds and hundreds of opinion makers, all of whom overwhelmingly supported Obama and the Democrats financially over McCain and the Republican party. The article concludes with an overall look at the numbers in media organizations. The conclusion?
    All in, the Democrats received $315,533 from media personnel against $3150 – from just four individuals in the trade – to McCain. That’s 100:1. Draw your own conclusions here.
    Intriguingly enough, media thought to be friendly to Republicans followed the same pattern. So called right leaning Fox News donated a total of $0 to the Republicans – that’s right, $0 – vs. $41,853 to the Democrats. USA Today, Times Magazine, Newsweek, Washington Post, New York Times (no surprise there!) – all goose eggs. A grand total of $0 from all of them. [citation: http://www.ibdeditorials.com/IBDArti…01702713742569] And those were personal donations, not the corporate ones, which also hugely favoured the Democrats.
    But let’s not worry about the cash. Let’s take a look at what the Media Research Centre has to say about actual reporting, where the journalistic rubber hits the road. First however, I ask that you sit down. A sick bucket at your side wouldn’t be amiss either.
    “The Pew Center for the People and the Press documented a landslide: “By a margin of 70 percent to 9 percent, Americans say most journalists want to see Obama, not John McCain, win on November 4.”” Even the public saw the media bias.
    Comments about Obama on the network evening news were 65% positive, vs 36% for McCain, according to the Center for Media and Public Affairs.
    A liberal run organization, the Project for Excellence in Journalism noted that in the six weeks after the conventions, the ration of unfavourable to favourable stories about McCain was more than 3 to 1. 57% were highly negative, while only 14% were positive.
    On the other hand, Obama’s coverage was 36% positive, 35% neutral and 29% negative. But here’s the rub: this survey covered cable tv and radio talk shows with hosts such as the decidedly right wing Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly – people paid to have an opinion. The between the lines conclusion is that, had such formats been excluded, the percentage of favourable coverage of Obama would have been much higher – and the negative far more muted.
    Now, tell me again about news coverage of the candidates?

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