Monday, September 24, 2012

When it Comes to Political Ads, No News Is Good for Local TV Stations

The political ad invasion is upon us. It's a toxic mix of half truths and negativity that's beaming into homes across the country, but especially homes in battleground states like Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin.

Media analysts project campaigns, Super PACs and often shadowy "social welfare" groups will spend a record-breaking $3.3 billion to buy up airtime as they attempt to influence voters before Nov. 6.

For the local stations that air these ads, it's a political goldmine. But what's a cash windfall for stations has become a nuisance for tens of millions of viewers who will have to endure thousands more political ads before Election Day (mercifully) arrives.

But what obligations have the stations that air these ads? Are they offering any local news coverage to debunk the lies in ads? Are they exposing the deep-pocketed interests behind the groups -- some with deceptively friendly names like Americans for Prosperity and the Coalition of American Values -- that buy time?

To find out, Free Press took a deeper look at local news coverage in five cities -- Charlotte, Cleveland, Las Vegas, Milwaukee and Tampa -- where ad spending has been the most intense.

We inspected the political files of stations in these markets and pored over hundreds of hours of local news transcripts. In all five of these markets, we found that local newscasts ignored the political ads broadcast on their stations.

In other words, they provided no local stories exposing the special interests behind these ads; only one station among the 20 surveyed devoted a couple minutes to investigating whether these ads told viewers the truth.

When you stack that up against the thousands of political ads they aired, this shortfall in reporting is appalling. For example:

The Super PACs vs. Justin Bieber: The hundreds of hours of local news that aired in the two weeks prior to Wisconsin's June 5 recall election included no stories on the 17 groups most actively buying time on Milwaukee's ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC affiliates. While these stations were ignoring the impact of political ads, they found time to air 53 local news segments on Justin Bieber.

Fact-Check Fail: The ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC affiliates in Charlotte, Cleveland, Las Vegas and Milwaukee did not once fact-check the claims made in political ads placed locally by the nation's top-spending Super PACs and independent groups, even though these groups had spent tens of millions of dollars on frequently deceptive ads in those markets.

Hush Money: Cleveland's four affiliate stations provided no coverage of the Koch brothers-funded group Americans for Prosperity, despite airing the group's anti-Obama attack ads more than 500 times. Americans for Prosperity has reportedly spent more than $1.5 million to place ads on Cleveland television stations.

News Out of Balance: Affiliate stations in Tampa were airing on average more than 200 political ads a day throughout August. Yet only one station, WTSP, devoted news time to fact-checking any of the most prominent groups buying these ads. In a single segment running less than 3 minutes they rated an Americans for Prosperity ad as false, a finding that didn't stop WTSP from running the group's anti-Obama ads more than 150 times that month.

This news neglect is endemic to every television market we've investigated thus far. (For more detail, see Left in the Dark)

In an ideal world, these stations would provide the kind of news and information that serve as an antidote to the misleading political messages most political ads spread.

But 2012's political climate is far from ideal. Broadcasters are loath to write their parent companies into news stories about policy and politics. This is due in part to the broadcast industry's significant contributions to political campaigns and its powerful presence among lobbyists on K Street and Capitol Hill.

But it's also due to the record amounts of political money flowing into broadcasters' coffers in 2012. When it comes to the billions in added revenues, no news is good news for local stations and their owners.

Imagine if things were different. Imagine that, in exchange for this massive influx of political cash, broadcasters did a better job of exposing the groups and individuals funding political ads in their markets, and addressing the falsehoods presented in many of these spots.

Democracy requires an informed public. But Americans aren't getting the news they need from local TV.

Instead, we have a political system whose players are constantly chasing dollars -- a system gamed to a point of dysfunction by wealthy, undisclosed donors and media corporations that are all too content to just cash their checks.

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