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

A move toward media transparency in campaign spending

The most squalid and anti-democratic element of the U.S. electoral system is its insatiable appetite for money, vast rivers of money. It transforms our leaders into supplicants, required to contort themselves and their policies to please rich patrons.

Current spending forecasts for all candidates in the 2012 races run as high as $8 billion. That’s nearly double the $4.2 billion of two years ago, which itself was double 2008’s spending. The public has only scant understanding of how insane these outlays are by historical standards. The 1996 general election — presidential, congressional, the works — cost $651 million. The major presidential candidates spent $343 million on their races in 2000; eight years later, in September 2008, the Obama campaign alone raised $150 million in a single month.

The harm that this dependency has done to our politics is a rich subject for investigative journalism, and the litany of corruption related to fund-raising, lobbyists, earmarks and the like offers perennial reasons for the rancid cynicism with which even people who aren’t especially well informed regard political life. The Supreme Court has held that the Constitution’s guarantees of expressive freedom outweigh the damage done by letting office-seekers bargain away whatever they must to coax unlimited funds from the wealthy so they can drown out their opponents at election time.

Still, most of the rest of us concede the electoral system’s gluttony for money is corrupting. So who benefits? Here, the undisputed beneficiary is the media, especially local, ad-supported broadcasters. In 2008, for instance, of the record $760 million raised by Obama, $427 million went to media of all kinds — from direct mail and billboards to newspaper ads. Of that, $244 million was spent on local radio and TV, Newsmax.com reports.

Just so my argument is clear: The biggest single reason for the worst thing about our electoral system is that to reach the voters, candidates need to pay the media a fortune. Hence, it’s no surprise that the news media rarely denounce runaway campaign spending. And if there ever were a movement, heaven forbid, to actually require broadcasters — in exchange for their licenses to use the public airwaves — to donate air time to electoral candidates, as other advanced democracies do, you’d hardly expect support from the National Association of Broadcasters.

But there is some minimal way these media barons can serve the system that feeds them so lavishly: They can maintain careful logs of campaign ad buys and make them readily available so that the public can learn who’s spending what and for whom. If the media are to be conduits for influence, the public can at Continue reading “A move toward media transparency in campaign spending”