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”

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 “The dubious value of primary debates”